IT WILL take a big improvement in performance for Leeds Rhinos to achieve their goals this year, in-form full-back Zak Hardaker has admitted.
Rhinos were knocked off their prized top spot in First Utility Super League when they crashed 24-6 at Warrington Wolves three days ago.
The league leaders’ shield remains a key objective for Rhinos, but they have now turned their attentions to the Tetley’s Challenge Cup and Friday’s quarter-final tie at home to Leigh Centurions.
Leeds will be expected to progress past lower-division opposition, but Hardaker stressed they must be better in all departments to avoid what would be a costly and embarrassing setback.
“We had a game plan and we didn’t execute it at all,” he said of the loss at Halliwell Jones Stadium. “It was a tough first 20-25 minutes and our defence wasn’t really good at all. We gifted them the game in the first half.
“It was always going to be difficult to come back from 18-0. We believed we could do it and we have got enough ability in our team to do it. We’ve proved that before and we played pretty well in the second half, but it was too little, too late and the first 40 minutes blew us out of the water.
“It was always going to be tough to come back from that.”
Rhinos have lost two of their last three matches, but asked if this is a mid-season blip, Hardaker said: “I’m not quite sure. Wigan are a good team, but we came back against a tough Hull side and I thought our forwards played really well.
“But then we slipped again on Friday and we don’t want to get into the habit of playing well and then slipping. We need to find more consistency and we will be looking to bounce back this week.”
Rhinos fashioned only a handful of chances against Warrington and weren’t helped by the loss of Danny McGuire – with what coach Brian McDermott described as “a knock” – in the second half.
With Rob Burrow already on the casualty list, Leeds’ creative options were lacking and Hardaker said: “I think it was a bit of a forward battle, so it was always going to be tough for our half-backs to put something on.
“Me round the back, I was getting swamped every time. When you are playing off a lost ruck you can’t really do much, especially against a quality team like Warrington. In the first half it got away from us and I think we lost it up the middle.”
The 18-point margin could have been much wider but for two sensational try-saving tackles either side of half-time.
First, Carl Ablett got across to slide Joel Monaghan into touch when he looked a certain scorer and then Hardaker did the same to Rhys Evans.
Hardaker admitted he was pleased with that individual contribution, but insisted it was little consolation in a lost cause.
He said: “It’s always good when you do something like that and we win, but I am not sure I’ll be looking too much at that, now we’ve lost.”
Despite Leeds’ defeat, that tackle – and a strong performance overall – underlined Hardaker’s status as Super League’s most in-form full-back, particularly on defence. The former Featherstone Rovers flier, now in his third season at Leeds, put his form this year down to “a mixture of a lot of things”. He said: “Me, what I want out of the game; what happened last year – I wanted to put this right – and the way the team is playing this year.
“They are playing really well and it is always easier for me to have a better game when the team are playing well. We didn’t play well (on Friday) and I don’t think any of our backs had a decent game, but we will review it and really take it to them (Leigh) in the next game. We will work on the positives, try and work out what we’ve done wrong and try and do the good things better.”
Leigh are the country’s only unbeaten team, having won all their Kingstone Press Championship fixtures so far this year, plus three knockout ties.
“When you have had a loss and you are a bit down it is always good to play at home the following week” Hardaker said. “It is the Challenge Cup and we want to win it this year. We have already talked about that and if we can beat Leigh we will be a step nearer.
“But they are top of the Championship and they’ll be full of confidence, so it’s not going to be easy at all. We will be favourites, but we won’t be looking at that. We will just look at them, who their good players are and try and find their weaknesses and work on those.
“We will go out and give it our best – it wouldn’t matter if it was Leigh, or Warrington again or Wigan or Saints.
“It is a game we want to win and we know we are going to have to really focus, because it is going to be a hard game.”