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Leeds welcome derby clash
Leeds coach Tony Smith believes Friday?s engage Super League derby with arch rivals Bradford at Headingley will provide his side with the perfect preparation for next week?s Powergen Challenge Cup final.
The table-topping Rhinos need the points to stay ahead of hot pursuers St Helens, who are at home to London Broncos on Saturday, but are guaranteed a stern test by the in-form Bulls who can climb into third place with a fifth successive victory.
Smith says a tough derby is just the sort of fixture to keep his players? minds on the job at hand and away from the glamorous Millennium Stadium showdown with Hull on Saturday week.
?We?d rather play hard games than play a soft game and go into the final with the wrong build-up and wrong sort of attitude,? said Smith.
?I think it?s been very good that we?ve played London and now Bradford.
?It?s a big derby, so they?re going to be putting their bodies on the line. I don?t think they will be thinking about the final - but if they are they won?t be in it, because their form won?t be up to it.?
After losing all five matches against their neighbours in 2003, Leeds have turned their derby fortunes around in spectacular fashion with six wins from their last seven matches - including last October?s Grand Final - and they are firm favourites to complete a hat-trick of victories this season.
But Bradford are hitting form at just the right time and have been boosted in recent weeks by the return from injury of New Zealand Test threequarters Shontayne Hape and Lesley Vainikolo, who have scored seven tries between them in the last two matches.
?They?ve been in good form for the last few weeks,? admitted Smith.
?They?re very happy about the way they?re playing. It should be a good challenge but it?s always a good challenge anyway with Bradford.
?They have a lot of good players across the board but they have definitely been strengthened over the last couple of weeks.?
Bradford coach Brian Noble, who has guided the Bulls to the Grand Final in each of his three seasons at the helm, reports his side have their sights set on a third-place finish - which would potentially give them two home ties in the play-offs.
?Realistically we are looking to try and finish as high as possible in the table, and third place is achievable.
?But to do that we have to keep on winning and keep the momentum going, so the two points at Headingley are certainly our goal on Friday,? he said.
?We don?t set those goals. But I am sure the players will have it in their minds that it is possible for us to finish third - and as professionals, they will want to achieve that.?
Noble is delighted with his team?s late-season surge but believes there is still some improvement to come.
?We did some good things, but I thought there was a lot of room for improvement,? he said.
?I am sure Leeds will have looked at the tape and see areas where they could exploit us, so the focus this week has been on improving in certain areas.
?As you come to what is known as the business end of the season, then it is all about gathering momentum - and we have shown signs, both with the ball and in defence, that we are playing more like we know we can and should be.?
Second row forward Willie Poching will be Leeds? only absentee for Friday?s engage Super League clash.
Poching is nursing a fractured cheekbone but has not been ruled out of the Millennium Stadium showdown with Hull on Saturday week.
?He will see a couple of specialists on Monday and Tuesday next week and we won?t rule him out until he?s told that he can?t play. If it?s felt he can play, we?ll make him available,? said Leeds coach Smith.
?We?d certainly consider him because his form has been terrific and he?s played a big role for us this year.?
The 31-year-old Poching, a member of last October?s Grand Final-winning team, had missed only one match this season up to sustaining the injury against Leigh nine days ago and was recently given a new contract for next year.
If he plays, it would echo the bravery of another Leeds second rower, Matt Adamson, who played with a metal plate in his cheek in the 2003 final against Bradford just a fortnight after suffering a similar injury.
Instead of having a plate inserted into the cheek, surgeons pushed the bone back into place and Smith says Poching could play with a scrum cap to protect the injury.
?He?s come through it pretty well,? added Smith. ?It?s just whether they give him the all-clear to play. If they say there?s no danger of any further damage, I?m sure Willie would take the risk.
?But he?s a very sensible bloke. He wouldn?t risk the team?s situation for his own reward, just to be there. He wouldn?t make himself available if he wasn?t right.
?If he does get the green light, it would be one of the considerations that he plays in head gear.?
Leeds have prop Danny Ward fit to face Bradford after recovering from a back injury alongside prop or second rower Jamie Jones-Buchanan after missing the last four games with a quad injury.
Winger Mark Calderwood, who has scored 31 tries so far this year, has recovered from a dead leg and maintains his ever-present record.
Leeds v Bradford, Headingley, Friday August 19 2005
Leeds 18-man: Mathers, Calderwood, Walker, Senior, Bai, McGuire, Burrow, Bailey, Diskin, McDermott, Lauitiiti, McKenna, Sinfield, Dunemann, Ward, Jones-Buchanan, Ellis, Smith.
Bradford 18-man: Hape, Deacon, Vagana, Fielden, I. Harris, B. Harris, Johnson, Lynch, Withers, Vainikolo, L. Pryce, Peacock, Paul, Henderson, Langley, Parker, Meyers, Radford.
Referee: A Klein
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Clough returns for Salford
Salford include hooker John Clough following his return from a month?s loan at London Broncos, while winger Junior Langi and forwards Paul Highton and Simon Baldwin are also back after missing last week?s defeat at Bradford through injury.
Wakefield are unchanged as they look to avoid a third successive defeat, which means former Leigh centre Kevin Henderson keeps his place following his debut against St Helens and there is still no place for prop forward Steve Snitch, who looks set to leave the club at the end of the season.
Salfords City Reds v Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, The Willows, Friday August 19 2005
Salford 18-man: Hodgson, Littler, McAvoy, Fitzpatrick, Beverley, Robinson, Alker, Langi, Coley, Stewart, Charles, Brocklehurst, Haggerty, Baldwin, Highton, Sibbit, Clough, Hartley.
Wakefield 18-man: Halpenny, Wainwright, Domic, Tadulala, Jeffries, Griffin, Korkidas, Solomona, J. Field, Spicer, Obst , Wrench, MacGillivray, Elima, Feather, Henderson, Booth, Snitch.
Referee: R Laughton
Thanks to www.superleague.co.uk for these two previews