Peter Smith: Leeds Rhinos facing perhaps their biggest relegation battle to date

James Segeyaro.
James Segeyaro.
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THE NEXT seven games will be the most important Leeds Rhinos have played in the summer era and maybe in the club’s history.

Leeds have had occasional near-misses in the past, most notably in 1986-87 when they avoided the drop thanks to a better points difference than Oldham, but never been relegated.

James Lowes and Kevin Sinfield.

James Lowes and Kevin Sinfield.

They were third from bottom in the first Super League season – 1996 – and battled through the Qualifiers two years ago, but the trouble they are in now is far more serious.

The 2016 middle-eights were a relegation battle for Rhinos in name only. After a terrible first half of the regular season they began to find some form, were boosted by a star signing, James Segeyaro and went into the Qualifiers with most of their big guns available.

Without playing particularly well they cruised through with six wins from seven and finished top of the table.

It is a different situation this year. Leeds’ squad is weaker than two years ago, injuries are persisting and their form is terrible. One victory from their last nine games inspires no confidence and they have won only two of their last 13 meetings with Super League opposition, both of those against Widnes Vikings.

Carl Ablett in action against Warrington in the Challenge Cup semi-final.

Carl Ablett in action against Warrington in the Challenge Cup semi-final.

They will be away to Widnes in the Qualifiers, playing on a ground where they have lost four of their last five visits. The exception was by two points in a Ladbrokes Challenge Cup tie earlier this season when they were playing better than they are now.

Their home Super League opponents are Hull KR and Salford Red Devils who are both in better form, though the latter – despite their win a couple of weeks ago – have a dismal record against Leeds.

The top three at the end of the Qualifiers will play in Betfred Super League next year. The fourth-placed team will be at home to the side finishing fifth in a play-off for the final spot, with the other two going into the Championship.

To stay up, Rhinos will probably need to win five of their seven fixtures, so most realistically that’s all their games against Championship teams plus one success against a top-flight side. Their opponents will scent blood in the water, particularly after last weekend’s Challenge Cup semi-final capitulation, but even so Rhinos face seven lower-ranked teams in the battle to save their skins, four of them from the second division.

They should be good enough to do that and, if not, they won’t deserve to be in the elite competition next year.

The fixtures have fallen well for Leeds who face Championship sides Toulouse Olympique and London Broncos first up.

Neither will be easy and both are must-win, but Leeds have been far too strong in recent meetings with second-tier teams and a couple of good wins and solid performances would leave the picture looking much brighter.

Leeds’ games against foreign opposition are at home, but both Hull KR and Widnes have to travel abroad twice. It is in Rhinos’ hands.

Clubs in the Super-8s will be keeping a close eye on what happens.

While they will be glad Leeds aren’t lurking ready to mount another charge to Old Trafford – and Rhinos aren’t exactly flavour of the month at the moment with other Super League clubs – the competition will lose some credibility if its most decorated and well-supported side is relegated.

Home advantage in the semi-finals is all that’s realistically up for grabs in the Super-8s.

Leaders St Helens are 10 points clear and there’s a six-point gap between Warrington Wolves in fourth and their nearest challengers Huddersfield Giants. With Wigan Warriors playing host to Castleford Tigers tomorrow, even second place could be more or less done and dusted by the end of round one.

However, at least Saints’ poor showing in their Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Catalans Dragons suggests the Grand Final won’t be a formality.

Play-offs in the Championship Shield have been scrapped this year and second will visit first in the final. Featherstone Rovers and Leigh Centurions can’t be caught so the only issue is the venue.

Relegation isn’t quite decided, but with Rochdale Hornets and Swinton Lions both five points adrift that doesn’t look like being much of a contest either.