INCONSISTENT IN the league for most of Brian McDermott’s spell as coach, Leeds Rhinos have become famous for timing their run to perfection.
This year they left it a little too late, at least in terms of the Grand Final race. Rhinos have finished ninth in the regular season First Utility Super League table, missing out on the Super-8s by four points.
At the end of May they seemed certain to collect the wooden spoon and were on course for the worst season in the club’s history. Five wins in their final six games was enough to avoid that and this is no longer even their poorest Super League campaign.
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In 1996 they were 10th out of 12 and won only six games, two fewer than this time, but ninth flatters them. Salford have been better over the course of the 23 games and would have finished above them – and in the top-eight – but for a six-point deduction.
If they had got their act together just a few games sooner Leeds would have scraped into the eight, but it’s their own fault they haven’t done that and Rhinos’ failure is a mixed blessing for the sides who are now preparing for the Super-8s.
The absence of the dominant team of the past decade opens up the title race, but will deprive four clubs of a bumper home attendance and take away some of the glamour from the competition. It will also make it even tougher for Leigh Centurions – the only Championship club with a realistic chance – to secure promotion, though Leeds’ presence is a real boost for both Featherstone Rovers and Batley Bulldogs, who are guaranteed a glamour tie and a rare moment in the spotlight when they play Rhinos in the Qualifiers.
It also muddies the waters for Rhinos as they plan for next year, assuming they manage to avoid relegation.
Had Leeds finished bottom there would have been massive pressure for a change of coach and overhaul of the playing squad. Instead, their improved form – particularly wins over the top two of Hull and Wigan Warriors – has given a glimpse of what the current group could achieve.
This is McDermott’s sixth season in charge and the the time for a change – for both him and the club – must be approaching. But, after achieving so much, he may not want to leave on a disappointing note. In terms of the squad, keeping hold of James Segeyaro must be a priority.
The former NRL hooker of the year has made a big difference since joining the squad earlier this month. It seems he has agreed a long-term deal, but with a get-out clause if an Aussie club wants him. He is clearly enjoying himself, but his mate Jamie Soward has hinted on social media that Segeyaro may be heading for St George-Illawarra next year.
Rhinos need to know one way or another as quickly as possible or could find themselves in the same boat as last year. Beau Falloon was a late signing in pre-season and it didn’t work out.
Stevie Ward has yet to feature this year and, with a full off-season behind him, his return will be like signing a new player, but Leeds need an attacking pivot with a quality kicking game. Though they toughed it out at Hull KR last week, the lack of a game manager with a clear head and the ability to calm things down when it got too frantic was obvious. Chief executive Gary Hetherington has brushed off questions about recruitment by pointing out that almost the entire squad is contracted.
That was a policy Rhinos undertook when things were going well, but limits their ability to change things after a poor year, should they want to. Normally clubs come under pressure from fans – who stay away – when things go wrong, but Leeds’ support has been incredibly loyal.
The fact they are Super League’s best-supported club, despite bumping along at the bottom for most of the year, is credit to the supporters and the work Rhinos do off the field. Also, the capacity of Headingley will be reduced to around 13,000 after the South Stand is demolished at the end of this season, so that creates its own demand and means it won’t be a disaster if some season ticket holders opt not to renew.