AFTER ALL the success of the previous three years, 2010 was an anti-climax for Leeds Rhinos.
At Super League’s launch event, held in London, a poll of the sport’s journalists revealed overwhelming belief Rhinos would go on to win a fourth successive Grand Final.
Overseas recruits Brett Delaney and Greg Eastwood were brought in to strengthen a squad which had finished four points clear at the top of the table the previous year, but Leeds never looked like hitting the heights of previous campaigns.
The defending champions dropped as low as ninth in the table – outside the play-off zone – in April and didn’t climb above their final finishing position of fourth.
Two defeats in their opening three Super League matches – at home to Castleford Tigers and then away against Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – set alarm bells ringing and Leeds suffered disappointment for a second successive year in the World Club Challenge, when they were beaten 18-10 by Melbourne Storm at Elland Road.
Kevin Sinfield limped out of the game due to a dead-leg, but Rhinos had chances to snatch the prize as Kallum Watkins – playing on the wing in place of the injured Scott Donald – twice just failed to touch down at the corner.
Leeds’ players – particularly an angry Keith Senior – were upset with referee Richard Silverwood’s performance, but there was no such controversy six months later, in August, when Rhinos made their first trip to the new Wembley to take on holders Warrington Wolves in the Challenge Cup final.
The classic 32-28 semi-final win over St Helens was a rare highlight for Rhinos, but they under-performed three weeks later as Warrington romped to a 30-6 triumph.
It was a third Cup final disappointment for long-serving hooker Matt Diskin and he recalled: “To play at Wembley is every player’s childhood dream.
“We desperately wanted to win the Cup and I was really pleased for the lads involved when they did it this year. I was ecstatic for them, but back in 2010 it was the one thing missing and we probably wanted to win it too much. Come the day we just didn’t perform and Warrington won quite easily.”
Leeds weren’t helped by the absence of front-rowers Jamie Peacock and Luke Burgess, who had both suffered season-ending injuries in an otherwise routine Super League win at Castleford two weeks before the final.
Then more calamity struck when Rhinos pulled off a stunning 27-26 victory at Wigan Warriors in the first round of the play-offs, to go straight through to the semi-final stage.
Danny McGuire, their player of the season, was injured in the final seconds, ruling him out of the rest of the campaign and causing him to miss the early part of the following year.
“JP and Magsy are key players,” Diskin said. “We had a good squad, but when you get to the big games you want your big players available.
“Any team is going to miss quality players like those two, so it was a big blow for us.”
McGuire’s injury was at the centre of a huge controversy, as Wigan players accused him of obstructing George Carmont off the ball as the Warriors man supported Pat Richards’ last-gasp break. Richards missed with a penalty attempt from the final kick of the game, but Rhinos players and fans were furious at the sight of Wigan men hurling insults at a stricken McGuire as he received treatment on the field.
Wigan went on to beat Leeds in the qualifying semi-final and then win the title decider and Diskin admitted it was a year too far for the previous champions.
He reflected: “The previous three years, what we achieved – doing the treble – was unique. At the start of the year we normally had a theme, something to follow.
“The theme that year didn’t really work.
“It didn’t take off. We still worked hard as a group, but probably when you’ve had a coach for two or three years things become a bit repetitive. Maybe some of the players got a bit disgruntled and at times they weren’t stimulated enough.”
On top of that, Rhinos were the team everybody wanted to beat.
Diskin added: “Leeds have earned the right to be shot at. That’s where you want to be, you want to be at the top and they’ve certainly done that.”
For Diskin, the loss to Wigan in the play-offs proved to be an unexpected farewell. He signed a new contract earlier in the year, but had a change of heart and was granted a release, moving on to join arch-rivals Bradford Bulls.
“It was a very, very tough decision (to leave), but the circumstances made it a bit easier,” is all he is prepared to say.
Francis Cummins and Willie Poching also departed from Rhinos’ backroom staff, followed by coach Brian McClennan.
He was replaced for 2011 by ex-Harlequins boss Brian McDermott, who had initially been due to return to the club as assistant-coach.
PLAYER OF the year Danny McGuire was a shining light for Leeds Rhinos during a disappointing 2010 season.
McGuire scored 27 tries in 32 appearances, the joint second-best haul of his career, equalling his 2006 tally of touchdowns and beaten only by the club record 39 he bagged in 2004.
But there was more to his game than tries and 2010 was the season McGuire came of age as a play-maker at the heart of Rhinos’ best moments.
The high point of 2010 for McGuire – and Leeds as a team – was the Challenge Cup semi-final victory over St Helens at Huddersfield, when the No 6 scored a brace of tries in a man-of-the-match performance.
McGuire scored Rhinos’ lone try in the World Club Challenge defeat to Melbourne Storm and bagged hat-tricks in wins at Bradford Bulls and at home to Catalan Dragons.
But his season ended in agony when he suffered anterior cruciate ligament damage in Leeds’ stunning qualifying play-off victory at league leaders Wigan Warriors, which kept him out of action until mid-way through the following season.
A product of the East Leeds amateur club, McGuire has been a key component in Rhinos’ golden decade, playing in all six of their Grand Final victories, scoring the match-winning try in 2004 against Bradford and bagging a double against St Helens four years later.
McGuire also featured in Leeds’ three World Club Challenge successes, scoring a sparkling try in the 2005 defeat of Canterbury Bulldogs at Elland Road.
It was McGuire’s drop goal which put last season’s Challenge Cup final beyond opponents Castleford Tigers and he was unfortunate not to win the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match. McGuire, who made his debut in 2001, is the fourth-highest try scorer in Leeds’ history, with 241 in 346 appearances.
He is Super League’s record try scorer and no other non-winger has touched down more times for Leeds. With five drop goals also to his credit, he is just 31 short of becoming the 12th player to reach 1,000 points for the club.
3: Senior games played by Jimmy Keinhorst before his Challenge Cup final appearance.
4: Leeds’ position in the Super League table
7: Players made their Rhinos debut – Luke Ambler, Kyle Amor, Tom Bush, Chris Clarkson, Michael Coady, Brett Delaney, Greg Eastwood.
9: Points Rhinos finished behind league leaders Wigan Warriors.
31: Touchdowns for top try scorer Ryan Hall.
125: Goals kicked by Kevin Sinfield, including four drop goals.
561: Points conceded by Rhinos in the regular season.
725: Points scored by Rhinos in the regular season.
1,000: Pounds – half of it suspended – Keith Senior was fined for criticising World Club Challenge referee Richard Silverwood.
15,355: Average home gate in all competitions.
World Club Challenge: Sunday, February 28, at Elland Road. Leeds Rhinos 10 (Try McGuire, Goals Burrow 2, Sinfield) Melbourne Storm 18 (Tries MacDougall, Quinn. Goals: Smith 5). Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Watkins, Delaney, Senior, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Kirke, Sinfield. Subs Buderus, Lauitiiti, Eastwood, Bailey.
Challenge Cup final: Saturday, August 28, at Wembley. Leeds Rhinos 6 (Try Smith. Goal Sinfield) Warrington Wolves 30. Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Smith, Delaney, Senior, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Buderus, Bailey, Jones-Buchanan, Clarkson, Sinfield. Subs Kirke, Diskin, Ablett, Eastwood.