GIVEN THEIR respective Super League histories it is not exactly a shock that Leeds Rhinos’ visit to Salford Red Devils this weekend is a top versus bottom clash.
However, in the past it has generally been Rhinos who are flying high and Salford struggling at the wrong end of the table.
Both teams have a 100 per cent record after two rounds of Betfred Super League, but Salford boast two wins and Rhinos have suffered back-to-back defeats.
That makes this Sunday’s game particularly interesting. Despite their poor start to the year Rhinos have an outstanding record against Salford in Super League with 42 victories from 45 meetings, though one of Reds’ wins was the last time they sides faced off at AJ Bell Stadium.
Reds will feel they really are a force to be reckoned with if they can repeat that in three days’ time and a third straight defeat would add to the gloom at Emerald Headingley, but are things really as bad for Rhinos as they might seem?
Clearly their form isn’t good, but so far they have played both last year’s Grand Finalists away from home and realistically Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors would expect to win those games, as Leeds would at Headingley.
Patience is the key. Leeds are adjusting to a new coach and have fresh players in key positions so it will take time.Peter Smith
Rhinos were very poor in round one and disappointing last Friday, but there were some pointers towards better times ahead.
Leeds started well and led twice before – as at Warrington – falling apart for 20 minutes before the interval.
At the start of the second half they were under considerable pressure, but were visibly battling for each other in their goal line defence.
They need to be much better under kicks and sharper on attack, but Wigan’s defence was split a couple of times and if they had been sharper and more in tune as a unit Rhinos could have added a greater number of points.
Patience is the key. Leeds are adjusting to a new coach and have fresh players in key positions so it will take time. Last year Warrington lost four of their opening six games and went on to finish fourth and reach both major finals. Rhinos, who were perilously close to relegation, won three of their first four.
That doesn’t mean things will inevitable improve this season, but the odds always were they would start slowly and get better and that is still the case.
Criticism has been aimed at Rhinos’ half-backs, Tui Lolohea and Richie Myler, but they are a work in progress. Myler was Rhinos’ player of the year last season, in very difficult circumstances and Lolohea has a good pedigree in the NRL and at Test level for Tonga.
They have shown flashes of what they are capable of, particularly early on against Wigan.
The duo have also made mistakes, with Myler hoofing two kicks out on the full in the same game. That doesn’t mean he is not up to it, the idea was good, but the execution poor and that can be fixed.
Callum McLelland, brought back to league from Scotland rugby union last year, is waiting in the wings, but he is 19 and has no Super League experience so it would be a big ask to throw him in at the deep end when the team is struggling.
The counter argument is – that is how he will gain experience and if he keeps impressing in the academy he will deserve a chance, but the best option at the moment is to give Lolohea and Myler – who both played Test rugby last autumn – time to gel and show what they can do.
With Josh Walters and Jack Ormondroyd having both signed for Featherstone Rovers last week, 11 players who had a Rhinos squad number in 2018 are no longer at the club.
This is a period of major transition and more changes are likely as the club rebuild. Rhinos would like to add a couple more forwards to strengthen the squad, but that will depend on others moving on. Ryan Bailey’s retirement this week means, of the 2004 Grand Final winning team, only Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Danny McGuire – now at Hull KR – are still playing and both have said they will quit at the end of this season.
Bailey’s career was not exactly all plain-sailing, but he was one of the best at what he did, played a big role in the most successful period in Leeds’ history and all Rhinos fans should wish him well for the future.