THE JOKE was on Leeds Rhinos as April Fool’s Day brought an other woeful performance and catastrophic defeat.
It was the 15th competitive game Leeds have played since they crushed Rovers 50-0 in last August’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley.
Rhinos have lost 10 of those and yesterday’s 30-10 home defeat by Hull KR was their third in nine days, two of them against teams who had gone into the game below them in the table.
A seventh loss in the first nine rounds left the defending champions second from bottom in the table and – though there is still a long way to go – Rhinos are in danger of failing to qualify for the Super-8s.
A decent run could still turn things around, but Rhinos show few signs of getting back on track and in fact their performances as a unit are getting worse.
Even with captain Danny McGuire back from injury for the first time since the opening game of the season Leeds were badly lacking ideas on attack and their defence near their own line was shocking.
Confidence is clearly at a very low ebb and though the effort is there, good players are making poor errors and bad decisions.
Leeds trailed 10-0 at the break, having failed to score in a half for the fifth time in 10 competitive games this year. It was the third game in which they were kept to nil in the opening 40.
Rhinos pressed early and created one good chance, but were second best after that and were twice embarrassed by Shaun Lunt’s quick thinking from dummy-half close to the line.
There were boos when Lunt went over for his second touchdown and again at half-time and Headingley was cast further into gloom when the visitors extended their lead at the start of the second period.
Hull KR, who went into the game a point behind Rhinos, clearly fancied their chances and they grew in confidence as the game went on.
Lunt, as he often is, was outstanding against the team he won the Grand Final with four years ago and Leeds struggled to cope with Rovers’ big men, particularly Adam Walker and James Green.
The visitors went 20-0 clear in the third quarter before Leeds staged a two-try rally. Briefly it looked like maybe they could pull the game from the fire, but 10 points was as close as they got and Hull KR added two late touchdowns to add to the hosts’ humiliation.
Both Rhinos’ senior wingers were missing as Tom Briscoe (shoulder) joined ankle injury victim Ryan Hall on the casualty list.
With McGuire back, Liam Sutcliffe was shifted from stand-off and named on the right-wing. He actually lined up at full-back, with Zak Hardaker playing outside Kallum Watkins.
Rob Burrow stepped up off the bench into the scrum-half spot for his 450th Leeds game. Jordan Lilley dropped out for the first time this year and is in Featherstone Rovers’ squad for tomorrow’s visit of Halifax in the Kingstone Press Championship.
Keith Galloway returned at prop and Carl Ablett was back in the second-row, in place of Jimmy Keinhorst, who has a calf problem.
Ablett had a decent game, making a couple of important tackles and scoring a try. Mitch Achurch started, swapping places with substitute Josh Walters and Brad Singleton was also among the substitutes, despite not having been named in the initial 19.
Ashton Golding, out since damaging an ankle in round two, warmed up as 18th man and Brett Ferres (calf), Brett Delaney (hamstring) and Stevie Ward (knee) remained on the sick roster.
Rovers gambled on their captain and stand-off Terry Campese, who damaged a hamstring last month on his return from a knee reconstruction.
He didn’t look fit and was hobbling from the start, lasting just 15 minutes before having to be replaced.
Lunt – also back from injury – came on and was one of three ex-Leeds players in Rovers’ side, along with Chris Clarkson and Robbie Mulhern.
The hooker had only been on the field four minutes when he gave Rovers the lead, dummying over from acting-half after Clarkson had been pulled down just short by Ablett.
Hardaker had missed the game’s opening chance when he dropped the ball over the line after Rhinos created an overlap just six minutes in.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan made an early break, but slipped and a kick by McGuire forced a drop out, but Rovers grew into the game after a shaky start.
They could have a second try but for a fumble by Graeme Horne close to the line and Kieran Dixon also threatened, but Ablett made a good tackle.
Five minutes before the break James Greenwood rumbled to within a metre of Leeds’ line. Sutcliffe and Hardaker combined to pull him down, but Lunt went over again from acting-half.
The try was greeted by boos from the crowd, but Dixon could not convert.
It would have been even worse had Iain Thornley managed to get over in the final seconds of the half, or find Ben Cockayne with his pass.
And then things did get worse. Rhinos applied some pressure at the start of the second half, but on the last tackle Burrow tried to stab a kick through, James Green picked up and handed on to Adam Walker, he passed to Dixon and the winger raced 80 metres to score.
He couldn’t add the extras, but at 14-0 Leeds were deep in the mire. Fifteen minutes after the break Lunt charged up the middle and Cockayne was in support to score, Dixon converting.
Leeds avoided a nilling with 19 minutes left. Ash Handley took a high kick, made some metres and passed on to Hardaker. He got close to the line before being tackle by Dixon, but McGuire was on hand to put Jones-Buchanan over.
Hardaker kicked the goal and Leeds began to show some fight and belief. Walters went close twice, Jones-Buchanan and Joel Moon were both held up over the line and then Ablett scored from Sutcliffe’s long pass, after McGuire and Jones-Buchanan had handled.
There was no goal, leaving Rhinos 10 points adrift with as many minutes remaining, but the fightback was short lived.
Another Leeds try would have made things interesting, instead their defence close to the line was exposed again as Mitch Allgood went over from acting-half.
There was one last embarrassment for Rhinos on a miserable night when, with three minutes left, Robbie Mulhern – shown the door at the end of last season by Leeds – ran through a gap for Rovers’ sixth try, Cockayne’s conversion completing the scoring.
The penalty count finished 4-4 (3-3 in the first half).
Rhinos under-19s were beaten 35-6 by St Helens in last night’s curtain-raiser, after trailing 7-6 at half-time. Joe Sanderson gave Leeds the lead in the first half with a try which he also converted.