- First of rfu.com's play-off team features
- Leeds Carnegie face London Welsh on Sunday, live on Sky Sports HD
Photo: RFU Archive
In what is set to be their last season under the Leeds name, Carnegie head into the play-offs with real momentum. Eleven of the last 12 games have been won, their only defeat coming at the hands of Bristol when the table-topping West Country side came away from Headingley with a 33-27 win on March 23.
Since enduring a bad day at the office on the opening day against Nottingham, which ended in a 16-24 defeat, Leeds have grown as a side and shown real consistency throughout. At no point have they lost back-to-back games – a sign of the side’s inner resolve, according to veteran wing Dave Doherty.
“After the Nottingham game we went down to Cornwall and got a five-point win,” he said. “I think that showed how mentally strong we are as a team. That’s one of the things Jimmy (Lowes – head coach) has brought in; he is a real honest bloke and will say when things are right and when things are wrong. We have a really honest culture here.”
The loss of key players through injury, 2013 Championship Player of the Year nominee Stevie McColl and back-row enforcer Ryan Burrows included, has been offset through clever use of the loan market. Jonah Holmes (Wasps) has been stunning at full-back when asked to fill in, while David Sisi has been a forceful presence at flanker since arriving from Bath.
Any pre-season fears about the lack of depth and experience at half-back have proved to be unfounded too, with Glynn Hughes and Alex Lozowski shining in the number 10 jersey when given a chance and half back partner Craig Hampson earning a summer move to Bristol on the back of a string of outstanding performances at number nine.
Photo: RFU Archive
At times Leeds’ 15-man brand of rugby has been a joy to watch, the way they dismantled Bristol in the opening half an hour of the televised match at the Memorial Stadium in early December will live long in the memory of most of their fans, not least because it laid the foundations for a first win at the famous old ground (28-22) in 11 seasons.
“The big thing for us is our ambition to play; if our skill levels are high and we hit a purple patch we’re a very, very dangerous side who can quickly put points on teams,” said Doherty.
“It can be tricky sometime because you put your skill levels under immense pressure when you’re playing at pace and the opposition tries to blitz you to force errors.
“As a winger it’s exciting to play in this team and to get your hands on the ball so frequently. We want more of the same in the play-offs.”
In beating regular season winners Bristol three times out of five in all competitions, Leeds have proved they can live with the best. But play-off semi-final opponents London Welsh, as Doherty admits, have proved a tough nut to crack. Both regular season games ended in wins for Welsh by a margin of nine and seven points.
“We know it’s going to be a massive physical test - especially at the contact area, but we’re ready for the challenge,” he said.
Photo: RFU Archive
“If you watch both games back from earlier in the season there was a lot of ‘dead time’ through penalties and infringements around the ruck.
“So we’ll be certainly looking to clear that up and make the game as fast as possible.”
The decision to appoint James Lowes (pictured) as Leeds head coach last summer did not come without controversy given his previous lack of experience in union. However the league legend, once voted Man of Steel, has been an unqualified success since succeeding Diccon Edwards. Lowes openly admits he is still finding his feet in the 15-man code so it will be interesting to see if his tactical acumen stands up to the pressure of the play-offs.
Similar in style to England and Harlequins scrum-half and former Tyke Danny Care, 23-year-old Hampson dictates the tempo at which Leeds play. His quick tap-and-go penalties and pace off the mark have helped Leeds get in behind defences and his passing and decision-making have come on leaps and bounds too.