McDermott preparing for the worst
Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott is happy for his team to take on the role of front-runners in the First Utility Super League title race as they prepare to host reigning champions Wigan Warriors but warns they will almost certainly have a "blip" at some stage this year.
The Rhinos were outside the top six at this time of the season in both 2011 and 2012 before going on to make history by becoming the first team to win the Grand Final from fifth spot.
This time Leeds are going strong in both league and cup but McDermott saw from St Helens' recent mini slump how fortunes can suddenly change and is not getting carried away by his side's impressive form in the first half of the campaign.
"If we are very fortunate enough to win the league this year and end up doing it leading from the front, that would be something I've never experienced before," McDermott said. "It would be a weird way of doing it but that's what we'd like to do.
"At the the moment, we're top of the tree but we're not celebrating that. That position can leave us at any time - we're not five or six points clear of anybody.
"I am sure we will have a blip this year and we'll plan accordingly. If we can go through the season without having one it will be nice but, in reality, it will come, whether that's forced by injury or by the nature of the intensity of the games.
"When you're up front, everybody tries to knock you off and nobody likes Leeds anyway, do they? We have a fair few derbies at Leeds - every time we play Hull, Castleford, Bradford, Wakefield, they're all derbies - and then we've got the big games against Wigan and Warrington anyway."
The visit of Wigan to Headingley tomorrow evening is shaping as the biggest match of the season so far.
Shaun Wane's men took the trophy from Leeds at the end of last season and have won their last six matches to close to within three points of their rivals with a game in hand.
Wane admits he was impressed by the Rhinos' 32-12 Tetley’s Challenge Cup win over St Helens last Saturday but knows his team traditionally thrive on the heady atmosphere of a Roses match at Headingley.
"They're the team to beat," Wane said. "I thought what they did against St Helens was perfect. They were very energetic. They are a very good team, with good edges and obviously they've got Jamie Peacock playing out of his skin.
"They've got some great players and when you start naming them it's quite scary but we can play as well.
"It's one of the best atmospheres you can find, is Headingley, and we always seem to play well there. We admire what Leeds do but they do have deficiencies and we're hoping to find them out."
An obvious deficiency for the Yorkshiremen is the absence of a recognised hooker, with Paul Aiton sidelined with a virus and Rob Burrow having undergone surgery on the collarbone he broke in Saturday's Challenge Cup win over St Helens.
"It was a clean break and he was having it plated," McDermott said. "The medical people are saying it's a three-month injury but I'm hoping it will be nearer two.
"We'll miss Rob, who has been brilliant for us this year. We'll have to plan accordingly and come up with something."
McDermott has not ruled signing a replacement or promoting Robbie Ward from the club's Under-19s team but more immediately he is set to switch skipper Kevin Sinfield to the dummy-half role, with Liam Sutcliffe and Stevie Ward helping fill the playmaking void.
"That's the probably most obvious option but there's a few different things we might do," McDermott said.