the curtain came down on Leeds Rhinos’ season, exactly four weeks after it effectively finished.
There are worse problems in sport, but Rhinos failed to handle everything that surrounded their Tetley’s Challenge Cup final win over Castleford Tigers.
Saturday’s elimination play-off loss at home to Catalan Dragons was Rhinos’ fourth straight defeat since Wembley and their sixth in succession in the First Utility Super League competition.
Resting players for the semi-final and final effectively sacrificed the league games against Bradford Bulls and London Broncos and cost them a top-four spot in the table. Though they played well with 12 men six days after Wembley, in the defeat by St Helens, Rhinos were poor in the subsequent meetings with Wigan Warriors and Hull and failed to turn that around when it really mattered.
Catalan’s deserved 24-20 victory will be remembered as one of the play-offs’ great shocks, though they had won their previous three games and finished just one place and three points behind Leeds in the league table, so maybe it wasn’t such a surprise.
What was a shock was the manner of Rhinos’ defeat. They have become known as a team who raise their game for the play-offs and if they do lose, they tend to go out all guns blazing.
Instead, Leeds’ ninth defeat by a converted try or less – out of 11 in total this year – was a continuation of their league form and summed up their year.
They started reasonably well, went ahead and were in a position to kick on at one stage, but could not do it and the visitors were allowed back into the game.
If Rhinos had won they would probably have been saluted for a resilient display which highlighted their battling qualities.
But they didn’t play well, made too many errors, conceded an alarming number of line-breaks and lacked ideas on attack.
But, like so many of their defeats this year, victory was within their grasp. Leeds led 20-18 going into the final minute and when Zak Hardaker – their best player by a distance – managed to get the ball out of his own in-goal area, all Rhinos had to do was hang on to it for a full set and kick deep.
But Kevin Sinfield’s pass from dummy-half was dropped by Tom Briscoe and Sam Williams, Catalan’s impressive scrum-half, simply picked up and touched down.
The visitors may have been offside at the play-the-ball, but Briscoe wasn’t tackled and video referees Richard Silverwood and Ian Smith gave the try, Thomas Bosc landed his fourth conversion and Rhinos only had time to kick off before the hooter sounded.
It was a big win for Catalan, who had lost on their previous nine visits to Headingley Carnegie. They didn’t do anything special, but were the better team overall, defending well, taking chances when they came along and refusing to give in when it seemed it would not be their day.
Rhinos could have no excuses. They were at full-strength, with Mitch Achurch – on the bench in place of Ian Kirke – being the only player who didn’t feature at Wembley.
The loss will raise all manner of questions, about both coach Brian McDermott – though his position is safe – and the players. The entire squad is contracted for next year and only Aussie forward Adam Cuthbertson is due to come in, but there will be pressure from the terraces for more new faces to freshen up an outstanding team, who are growing old together.
Despite being the biggest game of the season at Headingley, Saturday’s tie attracted a crowd of just 7,112, the lowest of the year and fewer than turned up for the Challenge Cup quarter-final against Leigh Centurions.
If, at the start of the year, they had been offered a Cup final win at the expense of finishing sixth in the table and exiting the play-offs in week one, it’s likely most Leeds fans would have taken that.
But you are only as good as your last game and memories over the winter will be of this poor defeat and the ones which came before it.
That may be one of the reasons behind Leeds’ dismal form after the Cup final.
The Grand Final, which Rhinos are used to winning, is the last game of the year and players can switch off from club duties, but Leeds still had key fixtures to play after Wembley.
The one slight positive for Leeds was that Hardaker out-played Mogan Escare, who he – apparently controversially – pipped for the full-back spot in this year’s Dream Team. Escare could have wrapped the game up for Catalan when they led 18-14, but his searing break down the left touchline was halted when Hardaker mowed him into touch.
Rhinos – who were awarded seven penalties to Dragons’ three (6-1 in the first half) went ahead after 17 minutes when Carl Ablett crossed after good handling by Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Danny McGuire, Sinfield landing the first of his three conversions. That came after the Leeds skipper had been taken out late by Louis Anderson. Another late tackle on Sinfield, by Vincent Duport, was placed on report and Hardaker kicked the penalty to make it 8-6, after Williams had crossed for the visitors.
An Escare error was punished on the stroke of half-time as Briscoe and Watkins hacked on and the later picked up to dive over, making it 14-6 at the break.
Tries by Zeb Taia and Anderson, after Ryan Hall and Briscoe failed to deal with kicks, edged Catalan ahead, but Leeds seemed to have won it with 10 to go through Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s converted try on the end of some lovely improvised handling, something Rhinos have lacked over the second half of the campaign.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Sinfield, Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Delaney. Subs: Aiton, Bailey, Achurch, Sutcliffe.
Catalan Dragons: Escare, Oldfield, Pomeroy, Duport, Millard, Bosc, Williams, Elima, Henderson, Anderson, Taia, Whitehead, Mounis. Subs: Lima, Bousquet, Pelissier, Garcia.
Referee: Phil Bentham (Warrington).