Smith welcomes Perpignan test
Warrington Wolves coach Tony Smith believes a trip to the Catalan stronghold of Perpignan on Friday night could be just the tonic his side need ahead of their Challenge Cup showdown with Leeds Rhinos.
The Wolves are desperate to return to winning ways after suffering shock First Utility Super League defeats at the hands of Widnes Vikings and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, not only to get their bid for a hat-trick of Grand-Final appearances back on track but to tune them up for a fourth Wembley appearance in six years.
A visit to the Dragons, who have lost just twice at Stade Gilbert Brutus this year, may not be everybody's cup of tea a week before the cup semi-final, but Smith insists it will be the perfect preparation for a testing climax to the season.
In addition to taking on the Rhinos on Saturday week, Smith's men face league games against top-six rivals Castleford Tigers, Huddersfield Giants, St Helens and Wigan Warriors in the last five weeks of the regular season which is arguably the most arduous run-in.
"I'd rather have a tough game leading into a big game most times," Smith said. "I don't think some of those easier or softer games do you any good before you come up against a really good opposition.
"I think that showed when we played Widnes after the London game. I'm not being disrespectful but that wasn't the type of game to really challenge us.
"It can put you in a false sense of where you're at or allows you to drop your standards at times. Getting back to some tougher games will be good for us at the back end of the year."
Smith's team selection for the trip to France - the team flew to Barcelona on Thursday morning with big guns Simon Grix, Trent Waterhouse and Michael Monaghan all back in contention - has not been made with the Leeds clash in mind and Catalan coach Laurent Frayssinous is expecting a stern test of his side's impressive home record.
"It will be interesting to see the team they bring before their Challenge Cup semi-final but I know Tony will put out his best team in Perpignan to win so I don't expect any favours from Warrington," Frayssinous said.
Leeds coach Brian McDermott is being a little more pragmatic ahead of the semi-final, resting several players for the visit of Bradford for what could be the last derby for a few years following the Bulls' relegation from Super League.
McDermott is giving a debut to 18-year-old Ash Handley in the absence of threequarters Joel Moon, Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall and has Ryan Bailey, Mitch Achurch and Ian Kirke returning from injury to offset the loss of Carl Ablett and Jamie Peacock as well as the continuing absence of suspended skipper Kevin Sinfield.
St Helens coach Nathan Brown is pinning his hopes on a makeshift half-back pairing to keep his side at the top of the table when they take on Hull FC at the KC Stadium on Friday night.
Saints have lost overseas duo Lance Hohaia and Luke Walsh with long-term injuries and, with alternative half-back options Jonny Lomax and Jon Wilkin also on the sidelines, Brown is pairing up former Hull centre Jordan Turner with the versatile Gary Wheeler.
"They will obviously play very differently to what Walsh or Wilkin would," Brown said.
"They are not going to play on the ball, they will just play side-to-side which suits their personalities.
"Jordy is a very good talker and everyone knows Gary Wheeler is a terrific young player so I have a lot of confidence in the combination we've got there."
Saints are just two points ahead of Leeds with an inferior points difference while Hull will be hoping to claim the Steve Prescott Cup, awarded annually in memory of the former England full-back who played for both clubs before losing his battle with cancer last year.
Hull have gone six matches without a win to lose touch with the play-off chasers but Brown is wary of their threat.
"They have had periods this year when they've been brilliant," he said. "They were probably unlucky not to beat Cas last week. They've got some players who are a handful.
"I think Hull are a side that are going to determine where some other sides finish in the table. I've got no doubt they've got some wins in them and hopefully we're not a victim of one of them."