Peter Smith: Magic showdown with London Broncos is definite relegation four-pointer for Leeds Rhinos
When the Magic Weekend fixtures were published last year it seemed the big game would be Warrington Wolves against Wigan Warriors, or possibly Castleford Tigers’ clash with St Helens.
Nobody expected Leeds Rhinos versus London Broncos to be the match with most riding on it, but – more than half way through the season – Sunday’s relegation battle at Anfield Stadium in Liverpool is a definite four-pointer.
Rhinos are 10th in Betfred Super League, ahead of bottom club London thanks only to their better points difference. If Leeds win on Sunday, ending a six-match losing run at Magic, it won’t keep them in the top-flight, but will be a step in the right direction.
The teams meet for a third time this year at Ealing in September, but London would probably need – because of the difference in for and against – to win two more games than Leeds. That’s far from impossible, but with both teams struggling for wins, points in the bag are important.
It was looking like London being a bit worse than they are would save Leeds, but Broncos’ shock victory over Wakefield Trinity last weekend put the cat among the pigeons.
London’s previous league win – before seven successive defeats – was at Emerald Headingley in March so they know they have what it takes.
That evening they led 8-0 at half-time, Leeds went 16-8 up and Broncos scored two converted tries in the final six minutes to snatch a remarkable success, their third of the season.
The eight points they have already is roughly eight more than they were predicted to gain at the start of the campaign and the pressure will be on Leeds. London are still the side expected to go down so they have nothing really to lose.
They will travel to Liverpool aiming to work hard, punish Rhinos’ inevitable errors and ill-discipline and test them under the high ball – tactics which worked in the previous meeting.
Rhinos have the better individuals. but can’t play as a team and that is something London have shown they are capable of. Broncos’ best chance is to out-enthuse Leeds, which is very possible.
Three weeks ago it seemed Leeds were turning the corner, but since going 28-0 up 46 minutes into the home game against Hull KR the wheels have come off.
They were outscored 24-0 from then on that afternoon, thrashed the following week at Salford Red Devils, embarrassed in the Coral Challenge Cup by Bradford Bulls and last Thursday against Castleford Tigers wasn’t much better.
It is hard to see where Leeds’ next win is coming from. A year ago they weren’t playing for Brian McDermott and since then they’ve not played for James Lowes/Kevin Sinfield, not played for Dave Furner and now aren’t playing for Richard Agar.
Nine players have left the club since the end of last season and a similar number made their debut, to no positive effect. If Leeds lose this weekend it will be hard to see how things can be turned around.
As for the Magic event itself, some highly competitive matches are in prospect, but tickets sales have apparently been disappointing and it seems fans aren’t happy about the move from Newcastle, which is an ideal venue for such an event, to Anfield, which isn’t.
Anfield may be an iconic stadium and a good Test match venue, but – for a carnival-type weekend – it is too close to the sport’s heartlands and too far outside the city centre.
To work, Magic needs to be two things: an opportunity to showcase rugby league to an new audience and also a weekend away for the fans.
This year’s is neither, it simply adds another fixture to an already overcrowded schedule.
It would be better to ditch it and move the Challenge Cup final into the May slot, but that does not seem to be on the agenda.
This year, in a complete reversal of the recent trend, Australia/New Zealand’s NRL has actually copied something from Super League and introduced its own Magic round, held in Brisbane and declared a huge success. Based on how things usually work over here, expect Queensland to be touted as next year’s Magic venue as soon as this one is over!