CAPTAIN DANNY McGuire insists Leeds Rhinos’ players – not the coaching staff – must take the blame for this season’s spectacular fall from grace.
Rhinos, who won the treble of Challenge Cup, league leaders’ shield and Grand Final in 2015, are heading for a relegation battle in the middle-eights Qualifiers after a 23-22 home loss to Widnes Vikings two days ago made a bottom-four finish a mathematical certainty.
Leeds’ top-flight status will be at stake when the teams in ninth to 12th place in First Utility Super League after the 23 weekly rounds play-off against the leading quartet from the Kingstone Press Championship.
The champions are two points adrift at the bottom with just three matches remaining in the regular season and will potentially be facing Batley Bulldogs and Halifax over the final two months of the campaign, rather than Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves.
The champions’ dismal year has left a huge question mark over the future of coach Brian McDermott, but McGuire insisted: “It’s not Mac that’s going out there and putting a shirt on and dropping the ball, is it?
“The coaching staff can only do so much during the week and it is up to the players to take responsibility when we go out on the field.
“I don’t think we have done that well enough this year. I think we all had a dig [on Sunday] and I don’t think there’s any players not trying or not wanting to represent the club well, but we’re not being smart at certain times.
“There were a few chances [on Sunday] to probably knock a drop goal over when we tried to pass and dropped the ball, so it’s a learning curve for us.”
As things stand Leeds’ opponents in the Qualifiers will be top-flight rivals Salford Red Devils, Hull KR and Huddersfield Giants, plus lower-division sides Leigh Centurions, London Broncos, Batley Bulldogs and Halifax.
The top three after seven matches will secure places in Super League 2017, with the final spot going to the winners of a sudden-death fourth versus fifth play-off.
“I haven’t really thought about it yet,” McGuire said of the looming relegation dogfight.
“We are obviously all disappointed about the result [on Sunday], but we’ve got three tough games before we think about the middle-eights.
“We have got loads to work on and that’s all we are thinking about doing.”
Leeds could still climb into ninth or 10th spot, which would earn them four home games in the Qualifiers, rather than three for the sides in 11th and 12th.
McGuire McGuire, who was one of three Rhinos players in a protective boot following Sunday’s game, along with Luke Briscoe and Brett Ferres, said it is also important Rhinos go into the relegation scrap with some form under their belts.
“We want to be in good form because they aren’t going to be easy games,” he said of the Qualifiers.
“It is going to be a tough competition. Huddersfield are potentially going to be in there, along with another couple of [Super League] teams and the teams that are coming up are going to be confident. They are going to be flying.”
Leeds will be the big scalp in the play-offs, particularly for the Championship sides, but McGuire said that is nothing new. “We’ve had that for a few years now,” he said. “Everybody wants to beat Leeds and this will be no different.
“At times we have been able to handle that, but this year when teams have raised their game I don’t think we’ve been able to match that.
“That is something we need to work on and probably look at.”
Meanwhile, the Leeds captain refused to blame referee Ben Thaler for the defeat two days ago.
Leeds felt they should have had a kickable penalty for interference in front of Widnes’ posts moments before Joe Mellor kicked a drop goal to win it for the visitors.
But McGuire stressed: “That’s the game, that’s how it goes sometimes.
“We didn’t deserve to get the points because we were a bit sloppy in too many areas.”
Leeds went ahead for the eighth successive game and led until Mellor’s late one-pointer.
They were 10 points up mid-way through the first half and 12 clear soon after the interval and McGuire reckoned they shot themselves in the foot.
“I thought we started the game really well and looked pretty promising,” he said.
“We did some really good stuff with the ball, but some soft tries we let in were disappointing.
“We made a few mistakes and Widnes are a team that can punish you.
“They have got some good players when they get in dangerous areas and we are really disappointed with that.
“I think we probably did enough to win the game, but it’s frustrating; the second half was pretty disappointing.”
One positive from Sunday’s defeat was Carl Ablett’s return following a long-term ankle injury.
McGuire said: “I think he was a bit knackered towards the back end, he probably played a few more minutes than he would have expected.
“But he always turns up and does the tough stuff for the team.
“It was good to have him back out there.”