LEEDS RHINOS’ previous meeting with Huddersfield Giants was probably the most dramatic game in Super League history.
Both teams went into the final round of the Super-8s with a chance of topping the table. Rhinos trailed by eight points with as many minutes remaining, pulled level with less than 60 seconds left and scored a winning try – securing the league leaders’ shield – after the hooter had sounded.
It was a moment of history and kept Leeds on course for the treble at the conclusion of their greatest season. That was little more than five months ago, but things have changed. When Huddersfield travel to Headingley tomorrow it will be for a battle between First Utility Super League’s bottom two.
Nobody would have predicted that last September, which is good for the competition as a whole, though obviously not the West Yorkshire rivals themselves.
Leeds and Huddersfield are the only teams in Super League without a point after three rounds, both having been missing a host of key players due to injury. Neither is in crisis yet, but they are probably teetering on the edge of one and whoever loses tomorrow will be in a hole. The pressure is more on Leeds than Huddersfield. After tomorrow, Giants’ next three games are at home to fellow strugglers Hull KR and then Catalans Dragons – whose away form is woeful – before a trip to another lowly side, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
Rhinos visit Wigan Warriors a week tomorrow, play host to St Helens in 15 days’ time and then visit Castleford Tigers the following Thursday, so that is a much harder immediate run.
Injuries and perhaps a loss of confidence seem to have played the major part in Giants’ poor start. For Leeds the problems are a bit deeper.
Three club legends – Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai – hung up their boots after last year’s Grand Final and it was always going to take time to adapt.
The Dacia World Club Challenge was a distraction and Leeds – whose 2015 season finished two weeks later than everybody else’s due to a tour match against New Zealand – have also suffered the loss of their flooded Kirkstall training base.
If a list was made of players Rhinos could not afford to be injured, new captain Danny McGuire would have topped it. He was hurt in the first half of their opening fixture.
Newly recruited hooker Beau Falloon has yet to play a competitive match and Aussie prop Keith Galloway is yet to find his feet in Super League.
Rhinos have been fielding a 21-year-old stand-off, who had seven months out following a reconstruction and a scrum-half who is 19 and had played four Super League games before the season began.
Questions will be asked about succession planning, but realistically Sinfield and Peacock in particular were always going to be impossible to replace, like-for-like.
Maybe Rhinos should have signed an experienced stand-off and goal kicker, but only time will tell. When Leeds won at St Helens last year, Sutcliffe was being touted as a future England player. It takes time to recover from a knee reconstruction and there were signs in France last week he is getting there.
Lilley is a rookie, but is showing huge promise and to be fair, Rhinos wouldn’t have expected both Falloon and McGuire to be injured at the same time.
Galloway shouldn’t be written off either. Sometimes it takes a while for an Australian player to adjust. Remember Scott Donald in 2006.
Leeds are doing things tough, but last year’s treble success earned them some grace. It may be a difficult season, but valuable experience is being gained and Rhinos are learning about individuals, on and off the field.
It is tough at the top, but a lot harder at the bottom. This season is a new kind of challenge, but in recent years Rhinos have passed every test posed to them. Some of those – possibly the ones most responsible – have moved on, but Leeds have too much ability and experience not to turn things around.
They will come good, probably sooner rather than later. They have got through their last couple of matches injury-free, players will soon be returning and at some point their rivals are likely to have a crisis of their own, so it’s not all over yet.