The last time this column commented on Leeds Rhinos they had just thrashed champions St Helens to go six points clear at the top of Super League and were motoring along nicely.
Since then the wheels haven’t exactly come off, but some air has gone out of the tyres, Rhinos haven’t won any of their three games following the victory at Langtree Park, losing to Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings either side of a draw at Huddersfield Giants.
Coach Brian McDermott says it isn’t a slump and Rhinos “haven’t been horrible” in any of those games. That’s probably fair, though they have been out-played in five of their last six halves of rugby.
Both Warrington and Widnes were the better teams throughout and Rhinos did well to scramble a point at John Smith’s Stadium, where they saw very little ball in the second half after deservedly leading by 14 points at the break.
Despite just one point from a possible six, Rhinos remain two clear at the top of the table and that is an indication of how superior they were in their opening 11 games of the campaign.
Seven points better off than fifth-placed Warrington Wolves, they have probably done enough to be confident of a top-four finish already, which must have been every team’s initial goal at the start of the season.
After 23 rounds, the competition will split, with the leading eight clubs going into a new mini-league, to decide the four semi-finalists who will play off for a place in the title decider at Old Trafford.
Points earned in the weekly rounds carry over into the Super-8s and the top-four play an extra home game – four on their own patch and three away – so, in that respect, Leeds are still looking pretty good.
If they can regain the form they showed up to and including the Saints game, there is no reason why they can’t finish as league leaders. Second-placed Wigan Warriors are in good form, but Leeds have them still to play twice, so their fate is in their own hands.
Leeds’ defence has gone off the boil in recent matches and that is one obvious factor in the current blip. Rhinos were the toughest side to score against in Super League last term, but have put more emphasis on attack this year.
Their total of 420 points so far is 39 more than second-highest scorers Wigan, but five of the top-eight – Wigan (220 conceded), Saints (253), Huddersfield (198), Warrington (282) and Hull (255) – have a better defensive record than Leeds, who have leaked 285 points. Castleford Tigers, in sixth spot, have conceded only five points more in seven defeats than Rhinos have in three.
So Rhinos need to improve in that department. The number of errors made and penalties conceded means Leeds are spending large periods of the game without the ball and are, therefore, running low on fuel when they get an opportunity to attack.
Some key men who played a big role earlier in the season are beginning to look fatigued, which is to be expected at this stage and youngsters who have stepped up and done well are struggling for consistency.
That’s also natural. The likes of Ash Handley, Liam Sutcliffe and Brad Singleton have all proved they are good-quality Super League players who could go a long way in the game, but they are still young and it is a big call to expect them to be at their very best every week.
There are no second chances in the Challenge Cup and it will be interesting to see if Kevin Sinfield is recalled against Huddersfield on Saturday, after being dropped for the last two matches.
Leeds can win without Sinfield, as they showed around the Easter period, but McDermott has declined to explain the thinking behind dropping his captain. The coach may well be planning for the future, but there are games to be won now and Rhinos have missed Sinfield’s leadership and game management, as well as goal kicking.
Sinfield isn’t a running stand-off like Sutcliffe, not an extra prop, which is how McDermott uses his loose-forwards, but he’s surely still too valuable an asset to be sitting on the sidelines.