SECOND PLACE in Betfred Super League is something to smile about for Leeds Rhinos, veteran forward Jamie Jones-Buchanan insists.
Runners-up spot was confirmed last Friday, when Leeds lost 38-24 at league leaders Castleford Tigers, but third-placed Hull were beaten at home by Wigan Warriors.
That wasn’t a cause for celebration among Rhinos fans after a fourth defeat of the year to near-neighbours Castleford, but Jones-Buchanan reckons the team can be proud of how far they have improved since finishing ninth in 2016.
He said: “I think Leeds fans want to get to finals and win silverware and that expectation is justified, but contrast it to last year – when we were fighting for our Super League status in the middle-eights – and it has been brilliant.
“We’ve had a Challenge Cup semi-final, a Super League semi-final and finishing second; it is a massive improvement on where we were last year.
“Castleford are an anomaly in how far ahead of the rest of the pack they are, but that hasn’t just happened in 2017, they have been building for three or four years.
“They have been making incremental gains and they have really reached the top of the mountain, but that’s where we are heading and we are getting there. We are in second place and that’s something to smile about.”
Jones-Buchanan was also encouraged by an improved second-half effort at the Jungle, after Rhinos trailed 30-6 at the break. Leeds lost 66-10 at Castleford in March and Jones-Buchanan said: “We went in at half-time and there were signs of the first game at Cas at the beginning of the season and there was a real danger of the score blowing out.
“At this stage of the season you don’t want that – you want to see some positive signs and some hope. We talked about going out in the second half and being more competitive and we were, which is positive.
“We asked a few more questions; we looked up a little bit more, we were a bit smarter in offense, we competed for a bit more ball and we were miles better in defence. We saw a different side to Castleford, but they are a fantastic side and that’s why they are so many points clear at the top of the league. It is huge what they’ve done points-wise, it is remarkable. They are a good side and the next time we play them we have got to learn from that, we have got to start better, be a little less tentative and have a lot less fear.
“We have to have a little bit of faith in one another to put our best foot forward and compete from the start.”
If the teams meet for a fifth time this year it will be at Old Trafford in next month’s Grand Final. Rhinos have a huge amount of ground to make up to even be competitive, should they get that far, but Jones-Buchanan said: “That’s what we have got to work on in the time between now and then.
“We have got a home semi-final and the couple of games before that are all about training well and improving. In particular our offense needs to be a lot better.
“It looks like it’s our defence that’s slack, but when Cas ask you that many questions you get the ball back exhausted. It takes so much out of you and you don’t ask them any, so when they get the ball back again they are fresh and they are running at you like super heroes. It is very difficult to stop.
“It is a crazy roundabout, but it does not take much to turn around and we have got the talent, skill and ability in our changing rooms to do that. That’s what the next two weeks are about. Regardless of what happens in the next two games we have finished second so we can play without any fear and just trust a little bit more in each other and test that trust and if it goes wrong we will learn something from it.”
“I don’t think it’s about running harder or tackling harder, it’s about understanding the game a bit better and playing with a bit more synergy.
“There’s a lot of positive signs and that’s what we need to build on in the next two weeks.”