TODAY’S HOLIDAY matches mark a new phase of the First Utility Super League season.
Round nine, played before Easter, completed the opening third of the campaign and for Leeds Rhinos, it has been comfortably their most impressive start to a season under two-time title-winning coach Brian McDermott.
With 18 games still to go, nobody at Headingley Carnegie is – or should be – getting carried away, but there are signs the 2014 Rhinos side will not be far short when it comes to the honours shake-up.
Rhinos’ record so far is: Played nine, won seven, drawn one, lost one. They have scored an impressive 294 points and conceded only 78.
Their one defeat to date came in a tight game at (then) unbeaten leaders St Helens and Leeds also drew away to last year’s league leaders Huddersfield Giants.
Leeds were sunk by a last-gasp try at Langtree Park and in both games they saw a drop goal, which might have proved a winner, drift narrowly wide late on.
Rhinos are at a crucial stage of the season, with today’s visit of big-spending Salford Red Devils to be followed just four days later by a huge Tetley’s Challenge Cup fifth round tie at home to St Helens.
Those are huge fixtures in the context of Rhinos’ season, but chief executive Gary Hetherington – who reckons the current group are the club’s best-ever squad – feels the six-time champions are on course to improve on 2013 when they finished third in the table, but failed to reach either major final.
“It has been an excellent first third of the season,” was the long-serving chief’s assessment. “As we all know, it is how you finish that counts and it’s important to reserve any assessment of the season until its end.
“But it is also important to get a good start and we have certainly achieved that, with seven wins, a draw and an unlucky defeat to date.
“We would certainly have taken that before the start, especially with what was a real tough opening set of fixtures: three of our first four games were away – at Hull KR, Castleford and Huddersfield – and the home game was against Warrington.”
Saints have been the form team so far, beating Leeds with a makeshift side lacking nine first-choice players, but Hetherington reckons they can be caught over the next five months.
“Our ambition is to win the league leaders’ trophy,” he said. “In many ways that is the most difficult of the three trophies to win, because you have to be consistent over 27 rounds.
“That is something that has eluded us in recent years, but to finish in the top-two provides a good reward and advantage going into the play-offs.
“I know the team are desperately keen to get back to Old Trafford (for the Grand Final) and also just as keen to get to Wembley and bring back the Challenge Cup and at this stage we have to be content with where we are.”
Saints touched down three times in last month’s top of the table blockbuster, but no other side has managed more than two tries against Leeds so far this term.
Rhinos have conceded just six points in each of their last three games in all competitions, admittedly against relegation-threatened teams and Hetherington added: “The most impressive feature of our team performances has been the quality of defence.
“We have no doubt become a more difficult team to score against. So much was expected of our backline at the start of the year and they have certainly achieved, both individually and as a unit.
“Few would argue that it is the best backline at the club since the days of Alan Smith, Syd Hynes, Les Dyl and John Atkinson in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Rhinos’ management opted not to make wholesale changes at the end of last year, bringing in only two players with Super League experience, England winger Tom Briscoe from Hull and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Papua New Guinea hooker Paul Aiton.
Aiton is facing a long lay-off due to illness, but Briscoe scored a hat-trick on his debut and has eight tries to his name already. Hetherington said: “They have both contributed. Often it takes new players time to settle in and produce the form they showed at their previous club.
“But both Tom and Paul have added a great deal and it is such a pity we will be without Paul – and Jamie Jones-Buchanan (torn biceps) – for the crucial period we have coming up.
“Hopefully both of them will be back to play a key role in the middle of the season.”
With the Cup tie coming so soon after Easter, Rhinos will have faced three huge matches in just 10 days.
But Hetherington said it is the tough teams, with the best squads, who will get through the busiest period of the year in the best shape.
“It’s the same for everybody,” he said. “It is a challenge and a test and it is part and parcel of what our season is all about.
“Everybody knows what the challenge is before Easter and the third game is often the toughest one.
“It is going to be a test, but I don’t see anything wrong with people being tested. With so much at stake, I think Saturday’s game will be full of intensity.”
Saints, Leeds and Hetherington’s hometown club Castleford Tigers – under ex-Leeds boss Daryl Powell – have led the pace so far this year, while Warrington Wolves – coached by another former Leeds boss Tony Smith – have yet to hit their stride and last year’s double winners Wigan Warriors have only shown their best form in patches. Looking at the competition as a whole, the Rhinos chief said: “It is a much more even league this time. Most teams have improved to such an extent there a not many surprise results any more. Hull KR winning at Warrington recently and the form of Castleford and Widnes has produced a real unpredictability which has added extra interest to the competition.”
Super League will be reduced to 12 clubs for next season, with this year’s bottom two being relegated to the Kingstone Press Championship. London Broncos – who have lost all nine league games so far – look doomed, despite a couple of improved performances recently.
And Bradford Bulls, who are on minus two following a six-point deduction for entering administration, and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats appear to be locked in a battle to avoid joining them through the trapdoor.
“I don’t think relegation will be decided until maybe the last game,” Hetherington predicted.
“London are clearly not at Super League standard, but they will cause an upset.
“Wakefield and Bradford look set to fight to the finish and I think 10 teams will fight it out for the play-offs, with two points potentially being the difference between several league places.
“All in all, it is a really interesting contest at the top, in the middle and at the bottom of the table and there’s much for the fans to look forward to.”