Leeds captain Danny McGuire believes his club's early exit from the Challenge Cup could prove to be a blessing in disguise as they look to start their climb up the Super League ladder.
The Rhinos' ailing fortunes hit rock bottom with their 36-22 sixth-round defeat at Huddersfield last Friday but, after playing virtually every week of the season during their two-year Cup rein, it will at least offer them some respite with three blank weekends to come over the next three months.
"M aybe that is a little bit of a blessing," said McGuire, who is expected to return from injury to lead the side against Castleford at Headingley on Thursday for only the fourth time in Super League.
"We can get a couple of weekends off here and there and rest players and focus on the league competition.
"We'd still love to be in the Challenge Cup because we know how special it is, but it's not to be this year so we have to focus on playing well in the league."
McGuire's sentiments are echoed by his long-serving team-mate Rob Burrow, who is one of only three ever-presents in Leeds' injury-ravaged season so far.
"The Cup is a real distraction," he said. "We've enjoyed being involved with that and we'd love to have been there again this year but we've got to forget about that now and we need to put all our eggs in the one basket and climb up the league and get into that top eight.
"We say it every week that we need to do it quick because the games are running out."
If the bottom-of-the-table reigning champions are to reach the top eight, Castleford are one of the teams they will need to overtake.
The Tigers are five points ahead in eighth spot and, although they have lost their last three league games, they bounced back to form with an impressive 32-18 Cup win over Salford last week and have their sights set on completing the double over their neighbours following their 18-14 win at the Jungle at Easter.
"Cas are a great side and they did really well at the weekend with some halves who don't usually play there," Burrow said. "They're winning with injuries and we're not."
McGuire, who has missed Leeds' last four matches with a nagging calf injury, insists spirits remain high at Headingley despite their troubles on the pitch.
" The mood is good to be honest," he said. "It's tough when you're not winning and you're not playing well.
"It can be a tough environment to be around. But we've got a good set of lads in this team, all pulling in the right direction.
"Although we're sitting bottom of the league, we still feel we're capable of a good run. We just need to get some consistency and pick up some wins and then see where we are after 23 rounds."
Castleford will give a debut to winger Paddy Flynn, who has joined them on loan from Widnes, and have full-back Luke Dorn and acting captain and scrum-half Luke Gale back from injury.
Loose forward Nathan Massey has been included in coach Daryl Powell's initial squad despite dislocating a kneecap in the win over Salford.
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