AFTER FOUR successive defeats at the event, everyone connected with Leeds Rhinos must be fed up of Magic Weekend meetings with Wigan Warriors.
Wigan – 40-8 victors at Newcastle’s St James’ Park on Saturday – may have to face different opposition in 2017, because on current form there is no guarantee Leeds will be taking part.
The spectre of relegation – and a Blackpool meeting with fellow fallen giants Bradford Bulls at the Championship’s Summer Bash next May – is beginning to hover over Headingley.
It is not mathematically done and dusted yet, but Leeds – after 12 defeats in 15 First Utility Super League rounds – are certainly heading for a place in the Qualifiers when the competition splits in eight games’ time. The reigning champions had lost more than 11 league games just once in the summer era, back in 1996 when they were beaten 16 times. That record is under serious threat.
It is hard to see where the next win is coming from and there is every chance Rhinos will go into the middle-eights as Super League’s bottom club, which will mean they play three games at home and four away. They have already lost to Huddersfield Giants, Salford Red Devils and Hull KR, who are their current companions in the bottom four and the way Rhinos are playing at the moment, the Championship’s high fliers – including full-time teams Leigh Centurions, London Broncos and Bradford – will have seen nothing to be afraid of.
Relegation, for the first time in the club’s history, is almost unthinkable, but Rhinos’ season is plunging deeper into crisis by the week and it is going to take a huge effort to turn things around. At the moment, there is no sign of that happening and, after a series of narrow losses earlier in the campaign, the margin of defeat is getting wider. In their last two games Rhinos have conceded 92 points and scored only 20. Clearly something has to change, because carrying on regardless and simply expecting things to improve will not work. There is no indication anyone at the club knows what is going wrong or how to fix it.
Getting key players back on the field would help. Assuming numbers one to 17 are first-choice, only six of those featured in the Magic Weekend drubbing and eight of Leeds’ team wore a number in the 20s – though that included Grand Final winner Josh Walters and England forward Brett Ferres.
Leeds’ line-up included three players who had not been named in the initial 19. Brett Delaney was set to return from injury, but suffered a recurrence of his hamstring problem in the final training session, the day before the game.
Rob Burrow dropped out due to a calf injury and Mitch Garbutt (back) joined a casualty list already featuring Tom Briscoe, Joel Moon, Ryan Hall, Beau Falloon, Carl Ablett and Stevie Ward. Liam Sutcliffe missed out, for the first time this year, due to a one-game ban.
Falloon is back in training after a back problem and took 18th man duties, but wasn’t fit enough to play. There were recalls for Brad Singleton in the front-row and Luke Briscoe on the bench, alongside 19-year-old academy player Sam Hallas.
The Stanningley product came on for his debut 30 seconds before half-time which, even by Leeds’ standards, must rank as one of the strangest changes of the season so far.
Though a prop by trade, Hallas filled in at acting-half and did a steady job, but it wasn’t the day for a young prospect to shine. Hallas was the third player from outside Leeds’ 26-man elite squad to feature this season and his inclusion raises the question of what it would take for Jordan Baldwinson – last season’s Championship young player of the year – to get an opportunity.
Injuries obviously have a bearing, but other teams have been affected this year and handled it much better. Wigan are a strong defensive team, but Leeds once again lacked ideas on attack and only really threatened when they improvised.
Their two tries were good ones, though and they did have a couple ruled out by video referee Ben Thaler, after Joe Cobb had indicated ‘no try’.
Cobb began the game as a touch judge, but moved into the middle after 17 minutes when referee Robert Hicks suffered a calf muscle injury.
Rhinos led for nine minutes, having scored first for the third successive game, through Kallum Watkins, who finished strongly from Adam Cuthbertson’s clever off-load after Keith Galloway and Lilley had also handled.
Midway through the second half another Cuthbertson off-load found Mitch Achurch, playing on the wing, and power and pace took him across the line.
At 12-4 just before the break, Danny McGuire dummied through, but lost possession trying to touch down.
In the second half Zak Hardaker twisted over, but the officials ruled a double-movement. Incidents like that, which went Leeds’ way during their 2015 treble-winning campaign, are going against them now. Confidence may be a factor and regular beatings must be doing little good for the likes of Lilley, Ash Handley and Ashton Golding.
Effort is not lacking, but Leeds are conceding too many penalties – which frequently lead to tries – and making soft errors in important areas at both ends of the field. Rhinos are beginning games well, but fall apart alarmingly when put under pressure.
Wigan’s first-half tries came in penalty sets, a regular failing of Leeds’ this year.
Willie Isa scored them both, the first on 16 minutes from George Williams’ pass, and then, eight minutes later, off a grubber kick from the same player.
An eight-point interval deficit was probably better than most Rhinos fans had expected, but things went horribly wrong at the start of the second half when Williams and Dom Manfredi both crossed after Handley failed to deal with high kicks.
Ben Flower went over on 53 minutes to make it 28-4 and Leeds’ second try came when they were down to 12 men, with Hardaker in the sin-bin for a professional foul.
Rhinos did not concede during that spell, but Wigan finished strongly and added two more touchdowns in the final five minutes through Oliver Gildart and Dan Sarginson, with an embarrassingly easy effort from acting-half.
Matty Smith finished with six goals.
Wigan did enough, but weren’t outstanding and won comfortably without hitting top gear.
In previous years teams have had to play particularly well to beat Leeds, but that is no longer the case.
The penalty count was 13-7 in Wigan’s favour. It was 3-2 to Wigan when Hicks went off and 7-5 at half-time.
Huddersfield Giants’ 48-20 victory over St Helens yesterday means Leeds Rhinos are two points adrift at the bottom of the Super League table.