Inside RL: Much more than result hinges on derby game – Smith

Brian McDermott.
Brian McDermott.
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COACHES CAN’T win, unfortunately.

Brian McDermott, for example, is being blamed for Leeds Rhinos’ poor performances now, by critics who claim last year’s success was due not to him, but to certain key players.

It is part of the job and McDermott would probably be happy to take the flak, if it keeps pressure off his players.

Around a year ago, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats boss James Webster was vilified for admitting his team weren’t going to get into the First Utility Super-8s and were instead gearing up for the Qualifiers.

McDermott is now receiving a similar level of criticism after claiming Leeds, who are bottom of Super League, five points behind eighth-placed Castleford Tigers, are still chasing a place in the top-four.

McDermott is probably realistic enough to know the semi-finals are already out of reach and a relegation battle is the most likely direction in which his team’s season is heading.

But his upbeat message, in the wake of last week’s Cup defeat at Huddersfield Giants, did not go down well. Interestingly, he wasn’t responding to a direct question about whether Leeds can make the top-four, but instead one aimed at what Rhinos’ ambitions are for the rest of the year now their Challenge Cup defence is over.

Talking to the media, particularly after a game, is part of the job few coaches enjoy and McDermott, in particular, gives the impression he would rather be anywhere else.

But he has fronted up throughout a tough four months, mainly having to discuss his thoughts on a loss within minutes of it happening and has in the main handled it pretty well.

Of more concern in his post-match press conference last week were responses to two other questions, comments echoed by chief executive Gary Hetherington in an email to supporters this week.

McDermott denied this is the toughest spell of his time in charge of Rhinos, which it clearly is. His reasoning was factors out of his and the team’s control are having a major bearing. He didn’t specify, but by that he is understood to mean the loss of Rhinos’ training base, due to the Boxing Day floods and the club’s horrendous injury list.

McDermott also denied players are out of form, but clearly some individuals are playing well below the level they did last year, when Rhinos completed a clean sweep of available trophies.

Leeds do have awful injury problems, but two key players – Zak Hardaker and Adam Cuthbertson – returned against Huddersfield in the Cup and Rhinos performance was a step back from the week before, in a league game against the same opposition.

The problem with claiming injuries and the disruption to training caused by the floods is behind Leeds’ poor form is it suggests Rhinos are expecting things simply to go back to normal when those issues clear up, rather than working on other ways of getting better.

Those factors have obviously played a big part, but Rhinos are also making too many errors with the ball, which are putting their defence under too much pressure. They are trying too hard at times and frustration is damaging their discipline. That isn’t an injury issue.

In their 15 competitive games this year, Leeds have dipped outside their senior squad only twice, to bring in Luke Briscoe – a player with Super League experience – and academy prospect Cameron Smith.

Largely, it has been players from the squad Rhinos started the year with who have been responsible for the results so far.

The top-eight is still in reach, but tonight’s visit of Castleford Tigers, who hold the final place, is a must-win.

Victory would close the gap to a manageable three points, but if Castleford repeat their victory of last month, Leeds will be at least six behind eighth place with only nine games to play.

Castleford’s season could yet go either way and they need the points just as much as Leeds do, so it is a big game for both clubs and there’s a lot more than bragging rights at stake.