WITH RESPECT to teams at the top of the table, Leeds Rhinos’ decline is the story of the season so far.
Rhinos have gone, in a matter of weeks, from champions to possible wooden-spoonists.
Nobody really expects Rhinos to be playing in the Kingstone Press Championship in 2017, but it’s looking increasingly possible they will feature in this year’s Qualifiers, involving First Utility Super League’s bottom-four and the leading quartet from the second tier. It has been a spectacular fall from grace for Rhinos, who have played only 10 competitive games since beating Wigan Warriors at Old Trafford last October to complete an historic treble of all available trophies. In fact, the writing was already on the wall. Rhinos were at the peak of their powers when they crushed Hull KR 50-0 in August’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final, but have been on a downward slope ever since.
Leeds have won only five of 15 matches since Wembley, three last year – including victories to claim the league leaders’ shield and Super League trophy – and twice this term. So, what has gone – and is going – wrong? Most obviously, three massively influential men have left the playing staff in Kevin Sinfield, Kylie Leuluai and Jamie Peacock. Sinfield’s game-management was the best in the business and has been missed in a series of tight games, as has his goal kicking. Peacock was the ultimate competitior – with a never-say-die desire to win – and his and Leuluai’s go-forward has not been replaced.
It’s too early to make a judgement on recruitment. Anthony Mullally has shown good signs and Brett Ferres has proven quality, but imports Keith Galloway and Beau Falloon have yet to make a mark. That is often the case and they may well come good, but the unfortunate thing is Rhinos need them to be doing the job now.
Rhinos have suffered a run of injuries. After 10 competitive games they have only five ever-presents and have fielded 25 players –plus one who was an unused substitute. Leeds have struggled at half-back and losing new captain Danny McGuire after 30 minutes of the opening game was a massive set-back, made worse by the fact Falloon was on the casualty list at the same time. Other clubs have had similar injury problems, but Rhinos haven’t handled it well.
Then there was the disruption caused by Christmas flooding at Rhinos’ Kirkstall training base, though sister club Yorkshire Carnegie – who were similarly affected – have actually won nine out of their 12 games since the turn of the year.
There are other factors which may, or may not, exist. When teams are struggling there are always rumours about unrest, players being unhappy and no longer having confidence in the coach. Only insiders can know for sure whether that is the case with Rhinos, but Brian McDermott is the most successful team boss in Leeds’ history and a proven winner. His record in league games is not outstanding, but he has shown an ability to get them up for big games, which they all are now. This time, so far, there is little sign of things turning around. The effort is there, but Leeds lack leadership, direction, a cutting edge in attack and steel in defence. It just isn’t happening for Rhinos. They have the talent, but they are not clicking and confidence is obviously low. It is not a lost cause. A couple of good performances would transform the outlook, but Rhinos are going to have to come up with something soon, or trips to Leigh, Batley and Bradford will become a reality.