IT WAS not so much the defeat that was painful for Leeds Rhinos last week as the manner of it.
All Cup losses hurt, because there are no second chances. Semi-final defeats are especially agonising, being a case of so near, yet so far.
But what was frustrating last weekend was the fact Leeds failed to do themselves justice.
They were competitive for the opening 40 minutes, but fell away in the second half.
Hull were superior in every department and from Leeds’ point of view the performance and result raised more questions than answers.
Old questions at that, of the sort being posed five months ago when Rhinos were embarrassed 66-10 at Castleford Tigers: Is Leeds’ squad strong enough, are players on the fringes of the first team and coming through from the junior ranks up to the job, is it time for a change of direction and some new ideas?
Rhinos have shown flashes this season of how good they can be, most notably in the first half of last month’s win at Salford Red Devils when, for half an hour or so, they were unstoppable. But they have been inconsistent, playing well one week and below-par the next.
There haven’t been many really poor performances and they probably balance out the very good ones, but a lot have been average at best.
That said, Leeds are second in the table and realistic contenders for the Grand Final. Unlike two of their rivals, Hull and Wigan, they don’t have a Cup final on their minds and will get a break for the Wembley weekend.
It was smart of the Rugby Football League’s fixture planners to pit the Challenge Cup semi-finalists together this weekend in the opening round of the Super-8s, but whoever won last Saturday was bound to be at a disadvantage when Leeds and Hull meet again just six days after Wembley.
One of the – many – drawbacks of an August Challenge Cup final is it comes just a month before the end of the eights and so a couple of slip-ups before and/or after Wembley can be fatal to a team’s chances of reaching or winning at Old Trafford. With league leaders Castleford being so dominant this year, both Hull, who have beaten them twice, and Wigan know the Cup final is their best opportunity for silverware this year and may well focus on that.
Rhinos should be strong enough to hold on to second place, guaranteeing a home tie in the play-offs. Then they will be just 80 minutes away from the Grand Final. Second place on the table and two semi-finals, at least, would represent a huge improvement from last year, but would it be good enough?
Probably not. In the early 1990s they were happy to be there or thereabouts, but not now. Belief may have risen to unrealistic levels, but there is a whole generation of Rhinos fans who expect success, which means winning silverware.
Rhinos fans were outnumbered at Doncaster last Saturday, which is a concern. Headingley’s capacity will be reduced for the next couple of seasons, but once Rhinos have their state of the art new facilities up and running they will need them packed out for every home game.
So, once again, Leeds’ management have some big decisions to make. Having stuck with virtually the same squad and backroom staff after last year’s disappointment it doesn’t seem likely there will be major changes after the progress made this term.
But of the club’s greatest players, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, are bowing out at the end of 2017 and while signings – Richie Myler nd Brad Dwyer – have already been made to replace them, more fresh blood is needed.
Stability is all very well, but new faces keep fans interested and established players on their toes.
Rhinos’ youth policy is admirable, but this year only Jack Walker has come in and made an impression.
Players from outside Rhinos’ elite 20-man squad have played bit-part roles this year, but maybe now the time has come to give players like Jack Ormondroyd and Jordan Baldwinson more of a go and see what they can do.
There isn’t a great deal to lose at this stage and – though planning for next year must have already started – what happens in the Super-8s could shape the future direction of the club.