THE Super League era began for Leeds 18 years ago today – and they got off to the worst possible start.
Leeds’ first Super League fixture was at home to Warrington on Sunday, March 31, 1996 and was watched by a crowd of 10,036.
The hosts – not yet known as Rhinos – were on the back of a shock defeat by Bradford Bulls in a Challenge Cup semi-final at Huddersfield a week earlier, but had beaten Warrington during their run to the last four.
Leeds were expected to begin their campaign with a win, but try scorer Iestyn Harris was in inspirational form for Warrington as the visitors raced into a 22-6 lead.
The Headingley outfit eventually found some form, hitting back to make it 22-18, but Warrington held on to secure a notable win.
Nick Fozzard, Kevin Iro and George Mann were Leeds’ try scorers and Graham Holroyd kicked three goals.
Reflecting on the game, Leeds coach Dean Bell said afterwards: “It is extremely disappointing, but I remain optimistic.”
He wasn’t really! Leeds had lost key men Garry Schofield, James Lowes and Craig Innes in the build-up to the start of the summer era and though some good players remained, several youngsters had to be thrown into action before they were ready.
The loss to Warrington was the start of a nightmare season for Leeds, who were involved in a relegation battle throughout and were only saved by the fact Workington Town – who finished bottom and were demoted – and Paris St Germain were even worse than they were.
Leeds lost their opening four Super League games – Castleford, St Helens and Oldham Bears also handing out demoralising beatings – before recording their first win in the competition, 36-22 at home to Sheffield Eagles, on April 21.
That was one of just six victories achieved by Leeds from 22 league matches and they didn’t manage to string back-to-back wins together all year.
Reflecting how desperate the situation became, Bell came out of playing retirement for the relegation four-pointer at home to Paris in July, scoring a try in a 34-12 success.
Home and away wins over Workington and Paris were enough to keep Leeds up and their other victims were Castleford at Headingley.
Embarrassing defeats included a 54-8 away drubbing and 56-18 loss at home to Bradford Bulls.
Leeds conceded more than 60 points in their final two away matches, against Wigan Warriors (68-14) and Halifax Blue Sox (64-24).
The average attendance at Headingley was 8,581 and gates dropped as low as 4,956 for the visit of Cumbrian side Workington in August.
Holroyd was top try scorer (13) and goal kicker (90).
Teams who finished above 10th-placed Leeds that year included London Broncos (fourth), Halifax (sixth), Sheffield (seventh) and Oldham Bears (eighth).
A key mid-season signing was David Hulme, from Widnes, whose strong defence and determined attitude played a major role in keeping Leeds clear of the drop zone.