WIGAN WARRIORS skipper Sean O’Loughlin still can’t understand how champions Leeds Rhinos are bottom of Super League – but is fully determined to keep them there.
It is barely seven months ago since his side did battle with their old rivals for the Grand Final at Old Trafford and lost out to the blue and amber machine.
But ahead of tomorrow’s Magic Weekend clash in Newcastle, unrecognisable Leeds are now 12th and in danger of being embroiled in a relegation scrap.
For O’Loughlin, who has fought Rhinos for silverware so many times during the last decade or so, it is an alien concept.
Asked if he ever thought he would see Brian McDermott’s side toiling at the foot of the table, the experienced loose-forward admitted: “No. And it still doesn’t really feel like they are.
“When you look at them now, although I know how disappointed they’ll be with the way they went against Castleford, some of the games they’ve not been a million miles off and have just come out the wrong side. When you look at the side you still can’t see how they’re not picking up wins yet.
“You do feel it will just be a matter of time before it all does click for them and they go on a run.
“We have to make sure we’re not the side that lets them do that.”
Wigan are in need of a lift themselves as they bid to avoid losing three successive league games for the first time this season.
They were defeated 30-16 at home to Hull FC last Friday and, before that, vanquished 40-10 at Warrington.
England captain O’Loughlin explained: “It’s probably slightly different circumstances for both teams coming into this – they’re struggling at the bottom end of the table and us off the back of two losses.
“I think both teams will be equally as desperate to get a win. We want to do so to stay up near the top end of the table to hopefully still challenge for top spot come the end of the season, and Leeds to hopefully kick-start their season for them.
“From our point of view we don’t want to be the team to give them the leg-up to get that run of form. We want to keep them not winning this weekend so we can get our own form back and get the two points ourselves.”
The 33-year-old says the predicament of treble-winning Leeds is a reminder to everyone what can happen – and that Super League may be getting tougher after all.
“It definitely is,” he said.
“The top of the table is still probably open to four or five teams at the moment whereas last year it was maybe two or three. It’s been a funny season where no one has gripped it yet.
“Teams have had solid results and not picked up losses and we’re quite happy with where we’re at the moment without really hitting our straps yet. League-wise we’ve got a chance of challenging for top but form-wise we’re still trying to build on that and get better.”
Magic Weekend has been a happy hunting ground for Wigan of late – they have defeated Leeds in each of the last three years, twice at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium and last year at Newcastle’s St James’ Park.
O’Loughlin conceded: “I do enjoy these games and we’ve had some good results.
“They are only worth two points but they do have that ‘final feel’ about them – a big crowd, big stadium – and the boys enjoy that.
“It just puts you under a bit more pressure to play well and we’ve kind of responded to that in the last few years and turned up.”