Peter Smith: Rhinos have hit a crossroads – but which is the escape route?

Brian McDermott.
Brian McDermott.
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IT WAS obvious anyway, but now it’s official – the next four games are crucial for Leeds Rhinos.

With a 50 per cent record after four matches, Leeds’ season could go either way. Wins in their remaining games in March would put them in a strong position heading up to Easter, but were they to lose them all Rhinos would be looking at a tough struggle to avoid another battle against relegation in the Qualifiers.

Brian McDermott and Gary Hetherington.

Brian McDermott and Gary Hetherington.

And now there is more at stake following chief executive Gary Hetherington’s email to fans in the wake of last Thursday’s record 66-10 defeat by Castleford Tigers.

The Leeds chief defended the decision not to make major changes after last year’s disappointment as “a judgement call which I believe was the right one”. But he also insisted the club are “not stubborn enough to believe no change is always the best option”.

That was the first time Hetherington, who resolutely backed Leeds’ coaching staff and playing squad last year, has indicated time may be running out for certain individuals at the club. Tellingly, he added: “This month is an important one with games against Catalans Dragons, Wakefield Trinity, Huddersfield Giants and Wigan Warriors and at its end we will be in a much better position to make an accurate judgement on the performance of all our players, coaching staff and senior management including myself.”

The most obvious implication is coach Brian McDermott has four games to save his job. The email to fans was a slightly different message to the one in Hetherington’s interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post last weekend, when he gave no indication he was considering a change of coach and spoke of McDermott being the sort of strong character who can handle the pressure the team is currently under.

A “record” number of emails received following the debacle at the Jungle may have underlined the sense of bewilderment, frustration and even anger among Rhinos’ supporters following last year’s spectacular fall from grace and the embarrassment at the hands of the club’s nearest rivals. Only Hetherington and those who wrote them know the context of the emails sent to the Leeds chief, but if social media is anything to go by, the message will have been that fans are unhappy with the team’s performances and the lack of investment in the playing squad.

Rhinos added only three players – and one of those was a necessary replacement for a key individual who had walked out – to a squad which finished ninth last year.

The fear was the same players would not be able to significantly improve results and, so far, that seems to have been the case. Leeds have faced two teams from the top half of the 2016 table and lost to them both, while beating the promoted team and the winners of the million pound game. The enforced absence of seven first-choice players last week obviously had a bearing on Leeds’ performance and the margin of defeat, though on current form they would not beat Tigers at full-strength.

The major worry was that the team on duty at the Jungle was drawn entirely from Leeds’ first-team squad. There was nobody drafted in from the academy – all 17 have been deemed good enough to play in Super League for Leeds. The evidence is that the squad is not strong enough and at least some of the players in the elite group are either not ready or not good enough to compete against the top teams. So, what is to be done about it?

Obviously, with several players in or approaching their mid-30s, a major turnaround in the squad is approaching, but that’s not something that can be done midway through the season.

If there is no major improvement in results or performances over the next four games, supporters will expect action and the only realistic course is a change of coach.

That doesn’t always work, as Hull KR and Huddersfield Giants discovered last year – and if McDermott goes Rhinos will need to line up a quality replacement, which is no easy task. He has turned things around before and it will be a shame, after all the success, if McDermott does not get to leave on his own terms, but Rhinos do look in need of a new voice and change of direction.