Peter Smith: Mac and Leeds Rhinos have turned things around

Brian McDermott.
Brian McDermott.
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FIVE WEEKS on from their worst Super League defeat, Leeds Rhinos look like a different team.

The 66-10 loss at Castleford Tigers on March 2 may prove to have been a watershed moment for coach Brian McDermott and his players.

Paul McShane scores for Castleford against Leeds.

Paul McShane scores for Castleford against Leeds.

It was their second defeat in four Betfred Super League fixtures, which isn’t a disastrous record, but the manner of it suggested Leeds were in, or slipping close to, crisis.

Missing key players and forced to dip deep into their squad, Leeds were utterly outclassed by a brilliant Tigers outfit who were superior in every department.

Rhinos were lacking in all areas and it seemed it would be a long way back. Famously, after receiving a record number of emails, chief executive Gary Hetherington took the major step of writing to fans to outline his views. He stopped short of issuing the dreaded vote of confidence, but made it clear the performance against Castleford was unacceptable.

For the first time, Hetherington suggested he may be having doubts about Leeds’ policy of stability rather than change and while he insisted it was not the time to make drastic decisions, he said the end of the month would be a better time to judge the performance of players, coaches and senior management.

Kallum Watkins.

Kallum Watkins.

He was obviously hoping for a response, but surely could not have predicted what would happen in the following four games.

Since the Castleford debacle Rhinos have gone on a four-game winning run, scoring 138 points and conceding just 54.

That is good going by any standard. More importantly, Rhinos look – for the first time since the end of 2015 – like a good team again.

Other than at Castleford they have defended strongly all year, but their misfiring attack has suddenly found its mojo and Leeds now appear capable of scoring from all over the field.

There is a long way to go, but a top-eight place – avoiding the embarrassment of a return to the Qualifiers – looks assured and the top-four is starting to appear a realistic target.

Rhinos can’t get carried away. They were outstanding against Catalans Dragons in the first game of the make-or-break quartet and haven’t quite regained that level since.

There have been scrappy periods in the matches following the disaster at Castleford, but Leeds have developed a winning attitude which had been missing since Kevin Sinfield, Kylie Leuluai and Jamie Peacock hung up their boots.

When called upon, the fringe players – who looked out of their depth at the Jungle – have done a solid job and some key players, including youngster Ashton Golding, half-back Danny McGuire and prop Adam Cuthbertson, are stepping up to the plate.

Five weeks ago this column suggested time was running out for coach Brian McDermott. It appears that was wrong.

McDermott’s job is surely now safe for the rest of the year. This is his seventh season, which is a long time in charge of one club, but if Leeds continue to develop over the rest of the campaign there will be a strong case for him remaining at the helm into 2018.

Rhinos look like a well-coached team at the moment. The switch of Joel Moon into the halves has – so far – solved a long-standing problem and provides an effective contrast with fellow pivot Danny McGuire.

McDermott has got his team selection right and the use of substitutions is working well.

Now the initial pressure has eased, the challenge of course is to maintain the current focus and momentum.

It will be fascinating to see how Leeds fare in their Magic Weekend rematch with Tigers next month, when they come up against Warrington and Hull in the next two games and teams like Wigan at full-strength.

As prop Mitch Garbutt admitted to the Yorkshire Evening Post earlier this week, they aren’t world-beaters yet. But after a long period of, at best, stagnation, Rhinos are taking steps in the right direction and McDermott and his players deserve credit for that.