AS SUCCESSFUL seasons go, 2014 was a poor one for Leeds Rhinos.
On the positive side, they won one of the two major pieces of silverware available, ending a 15-year quest for glory in the Tetley’s Challenge Cup.
In an dominant knockout campaign, against top opposition, Rhinos only once looked like they might lose and that was at home to Kingstone Press Championship outfit Leigh Centurions.
They were too good in their other four matches and an emphatic victory over Castleford at Wembley meant they have won every possible honour – Challenge Cup, Super League, league leaders’ shield and World Club Challenge – over the past six seasons.
Brian McDermott, who has achieved all those other than top spot in the table, is confirmed as Leeds’ most successful coach and players like Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Kylie Leuluai, Jamie Peacock, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Ryan Bailey can head into the twilight of their career with greatness assured.
That was the good news, but it is not what many fans will be dwelling on over the long winter. In sport any team is only as good as the last game and Rhinos have gone into the off-season – earlier than at any time since 2006 – on the back of not just one bad defeat, but a run of them. Rhinos’ last victory in Super League was away to Salford on July 24. They didn’t win a home match after the visit of Hull KR on July 11.
Six straight Super League defeats – and a run of four successive losses – was a miserable way to finish a season which began with so much promise. Leeds won 11, drew one and lost two of their opening 14 league games. That’s a total of 23 points out of a possible 28 in the first half of the campaign.
But of their final 13 league matches, Rhinos won four, drew one and lost eight – collecting just nine points. That is relegation form and it saw them slip to sixth in the table, their worst position for 18 years. Rhinos lost to both relegated clubs – suffering the huge embarrassment of being London Broncos’ only victims this year – and twice were beaten by teams they had scored more than 50 points against in the first half of the season.
The run of league losses which began at home to already-relegated Bradford Bulls in August was broken up by two wins, in the Tetley’s Challenge Cup semi-final against Warrington Wolves and over Castleford Tigers in the final two weeks later. The Challenge Cup was a major goal for Leeds at the start of the campaign and their run to Wembley clearly had a bearing on league form.
At least four points were sacrificed to the cause as weakened teams were fielded against Bradford before the semi-final and at London six days ahead of the final – though the players McDermott sent out were good enough to win both matches. Four points from those games would have lifted Leeds to fourth place in the table, guaranteeing them a home tie in the play-offs and a second chance if they lost their opening game.
Rhinos are used to winning the Grand Final, which is the last game of the season. They seemed to struggle to adjust their mindset to the fact that they had four games – at least – still to play after the Wembley triumph.
Leeds were in the top two or three – and in contention for the league leaders’ shield – until the final couple of weeks of the campaign and were competitive in almost every game they played.
Of their 11 losses this year, nine were by six points or fewer and they twice had what would potentially have been a match-winning touchdown ruled out after the final hooter.
The fact they finished sixth is a reflection of a levelling out – or possibly down – of the competition.
Rhinos have no right to expect success, but it was massively disappointing, even taking into account the Wembley win.
Rhinos finished the regular season with Super League’s best defence, conceding just 421 points at an average of less than 16 per match, but scoring points was the problem. Six teams rattled up more than Rhinos’ total of 685 and that is despite Leeds boasting the best set of outside-backs in the competition. They played some lovely stuff at times, but their most potent attacking players didn’t see enough of the ball.
Ryan Hall top-scored with 23 tries in all matches, but his nearest challenger was fellow winger Tom Briscoe, with just 12.
Rhinos fans expect to see their team playing vibrant, free-flowing rugby and there wasn’t enough of that this season.
With so many players now aged over 30, the current team – the most successful in Leeds’ history – is running out of time. Looking at the squad list individually, it’s difficult to pick out anybody who can no longer contribute to the level expected. But as a unit, maybe their race is run.
The entire squad are contracted for 2015 and only one new face has been added. Aussie Adam Cuthbertson has the potential to be a good recruit, though he is unlikely to set fans’ pulses racing.
Assessing what has happened since May it is impossible to avoid the conculsion it is time to bring in fresh blood, ahead of what will be an even more difficult campaign next year.