Wolves revival to get major test
The strength of Warrington Wolves’ recent revival will be put to the test as First Utility Super League leaders Leeds Rhinos visit the Halliwell Jones Stadium on Friday.
The Wolves, beaten Grand Finalists in the past two seasons, began the current campaign as title favourites but struggled to live up to that tag in an indifferent start to the year.
Leeds, by contrast, hit the ground running and set the standard during the first half of the season.
Warrington are now trying to play catch-up and have started to hit form with a run of three successive wins including an impressive defeat of another of the early pace-setters, St Helens.
Wolves' former Leeds coach Tony Smith said: "Momentum is good and it is important within sport.
"You gain confidence from putting some performances together back to back.
"Coming into a game like Leeds you know you have to be good. They are the benchmark of the competition at the moment. They are the league leaders and rightly so.
"You know you are in for a game when you play Leeds. You know you have to play well but we are looking forward to the challenge."
Warrington are boosted by the return of the Monaghan brothers, hooker Michael and winger Joel, but influential forward Ben Westwood is beginning a three-match ban for a dangerous throw.
News of that suspension was a further blow to Warrington, soon after it emerged the knee injury sustained by another second row, Trent Waterhouse, earlier this month could sideline him until August.
"The timing of it isn't great for us, on the back of losing Trent for three months," Smith said.
Leeds coach Brian McDermott also sees the game as a big test for his side.
The Rhinos still lead the table by a point but their momentum has slowed after a loss to Wigan Warriors a fortnight ago and a scrappy win over Hull FC last week.
McDermott said: "Warrington are on that curve of improvement. They are gathering momentum and that can be dangerous.
"I haven't been lulled into that sense that Warrington have gone for this year. They will be in the mix at the end of the year in both competitions.
"From where they were I am sure they will be beaming with confidence. It will be a big game and the start will be important."
McDermott will welcome back evergreen prop Jamie Peacock after he rested a leg injury against Hull FC.
Second-placed Saints, who host Salford Red Devils, will hope to pounce on any slip-up by Leeds to snatch top spot.
Nathan Brown's side responded to their Magic Weekend hammering by Warrington - which prompted some harsh words from within the camp - with a convincing defeat of Huddersfield Giants last week.
Brown said: "Obviously the mood in the camp has been helped after having a good result and putting in a good effort.
"The boys are a bit more buoyant this week. Last week was different after what Warrington did to us. Now we are looking to move forward.
"We wouldn't have been second going into the game last week if there were that many negative things happening, it was just one or two small parts of the game that I felt we needed to improve.
"The sides winning the trophies generally get that part of the game right when it matters. I thought there were a lot of positive things in that result."
Salford remain something of a mystery with their expensively-assembled side still failing to fire. Last week's loss to injury-ravaged Wigan raised further questions of their play-off credentials.
Brown said: "They haven't won for a while but they are going to win one soon, just on sheer talent. We are going to have to do what we did last week and do it better in some areas if we want to do well."
Friday's other match also takes place in the north west as Widnes Vikings host Catalan Dragons.
Widnes have impressed this season in sustaining a play-off challenge but the Dragons, even though their improvement is fuelled largely by their home form, are closing in.
Vikings coach Denis Betts said: "They are a different proposition away from home but they are growing every week at the moment and their confidence is getting high. We know they are going to be a difficult side to beat."