THE FUTURE looks bleak for Leeds Rhinos and coach Brian McDermott after they were humiliated 52-12 by a red-hot Castleford Tigers outfit at Headingley last night.
Leeds are now six points adrift of the top-eight – and that could be worse by the end of the weekend – with only nine games remaining in the weekly rounds and they play three of the top-four next.
How well Cas played will unfortunately get lost in the developing story which is last year’s treble winners’ amazing fall from grace.
Rhinos led 6-0 after five minutes and then collapsed in a messy heap as Cas – led by the inspirational Luke Gale and with Luke Dorn scoring tries for fun – ripped them apart.
It was 30-6 at the break and that was a fair reflection of the opening 40. Leeds weren’t even competitive.
The visitors ran in back to-back-tries at the start of the second half to make it 40-6 and the only surprise was Cas didn’t score more.
It was the highest score against Leeds at Headingley since 1996. Cas had outstanding performers all over the field. Veteran full-back Dorn, returning from long-term injury, scored a first half hat-trick and, running off Gale, was a threat every time he touched the ball.
Gale came through Leeds’ academy system and was head and shoulders above anybody in blue and amber and there was terrific support from Junior Moors and Denny Solomona, though it was magnificent team effort.
If it wasn’t a crisis for Leeds earlier in the week, when chief executive Gary Hetherington wrote to fans urging their continued support, it certainly is now.
The booing from the crowd and sight of fans leaving in the opening minutes of the second half told its own story.
Tigers – with an injury list as long as Leeds’ – embarrassed last year’s treble-winners. It was arguably Rhinos’ worst night since Super League began 20 years ago – as well as one of Cas’ best.
Pressure will grow on McDermott and it is difficult to see where he takes the team from here.
There is no sign of improvement. Leeds have no bite in defence, little threat in attack and they are making the same mistakes week on week.
Meetings in the middle-eights with Leigh, London, Bradford and Featherstone/Halifax/Batley now look inevitable and on current form Rhinos won’t be able to take any of those for granted.
As was the case at Huddersfield six days earlier, Leeds began well and led after five minutes, scoring in a penalty set.
Keith Galloway – who was one of Leeds’ few successes – made a strong run and on the next play Mitch Garbutt went over from Rob Burrow’s pass and Jordan Lilley converted.
Four minutes later Leeds were caught not standing square in their own half and Cas exposed a huge weakness by scoring in the subsequent set, Dorn going over from Moors’ excellent offload. Gale’s conversion levelled the scores.
Dorn and Gale were both back after injury. Dorn replaced Ryan Hampshire at full-back and Gale was at scrum-half, alongside Paul McShane, so Grant Millington switched to the bench.
Jake Webster dropped out because of a recurring hip problem, Joel Monaghan moved into the centres and winger Paddy Flynn made his debut on the right-wing. He did a good job.
Jy Hitchcox was the third player out from last week’s side and Cas had seven players on their casualty list: Webster, Michael Shenton, Ben Roberts, Andy Lynch, Oliver Holmes, Frankie Mariano and Ash Robson.
Leeds had a similar number out, with Tom Briscoe, Joel Moon, Ryan Hall, Beau Fallon, Carl Ablett, Stevie Ward and Brett Delaney all remaining on the sidelines.
McGuire was the only player back for Leeds. He came straight in at stand-off, so Liam Sutcliffe dropped to the bench, as did Josh Walters. He made way for Adam Cuthbertson, who stepped up into the starting line-up, at loose-forward. Luke Briscoe dropped out.
McGuire got over the line on 16 minutes, but there was a clear obstruction by Brett Ferres on Dorn in the build-up.
So that was a penalty to Cas and the inevitable try. Gale put up a kick, Monaghan got to it ahead of Ash Handley and offloaded to Solomona, who made a spectacular, acrobatic touchdown, which was confirmed by video ref Phil Bentham.
Flying finishes are becoming a Super League staple and Solomona is better at them than anybody else in the game, though even by his standards, this one was a stunner.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan was held up over the line, but Cas looked the most dangerous despite a couple of big tackles from Galloway.
The difference between the sides was illustrated 12 minutes before the break when Lilley gave Handley the ball on the short side a few metres out and Solomona bashed him into touch.
Gale then had Leeds back-peddling with a smart run before an even better kick split the defence and Dorn read it to perfection to go over for his second, which the No 7 improved.
It was 18-6 at that point, but Cas really stamped their superiority on the game with two more tries before the interval.
McShane and Mike McMeeken easily opened up the defence to lay on Dorn’s hat-trick – in a set from a penalty to maintain that 100 per cent record – and then Gale booted a 40-20 and from that he and Dorn linked to send Monaghan in. There was a possible obstruction by Millington on Jones-Buchanan in the build-up, but Bentham gave the green light and Gale landed his fifth goal after the hooter.
Cas were even further out of sight within five minutes of the re-start. Solomona went over again after Handley spilled Gale’s kick and then – after Leeds were caught offside from the re-start – Gadwin Springer shrugged off Walters, Kallum Watkins and Golding.
Handley scored a nice try, with Hardaker, McGuire, Cuthbertson, Lilley and Walters involved in theh build-up and Lilley converted.
But Flynn had a touchdown ruled out for obstruction, Leeds lost possession and Ben Crooks picked up to speed over, Gale adding his seventh conversion.
Mullally, who at least had a go, was held up over the line with 10 left.
The penalty count finished (4-3 to Rhinos in the first half).
Meanwhile, Rhinos’ Cameron Smith and Tigers’ Conor Fitzsimmons – who both made their Super League debut two weeks ago – are in the England academy squad to face France later this month.
Leeds’ Mikolaj Oledzki and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Judah Mazive and James Batchelor are also in the initial 19 for the Test which will be played as a curtain-raiser to Rhinos’ Super League game at Warrington on Friday, May 27.