Peter Smith: Where did it all go wrong for Leeds Rhinos?

Leeds Rhinos director of rugby Kevin Sinfield.
Leeds Rhinos director of rugby Kevin Sinfield.
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ON APRIL 29, Leeds Rhinos battled to a 20-18 win over Hull KR at KCOM Craven Park.

The following day players and coaches attended the premiere of a documentary film about their 2015 treble triumph, called As Good As It Gets?

Keith Galloway.

Keith Galloway.

Ironic really, because since then the season has rapidly got a lot worse.

The victory at Hull KR left them fifth in Betfred Super League, just a point outside the semi-final places and a massive nine clear of ninth-placed Widnes Vikings with 11 games remaining in the regular season.

Twenty points is the target for teams to ensure qualification for the Super-8s and Leeds were only five adrift. Wakefield Trinity had a meagre 10 points and were eighth. Huddersfield Giants were rock bottom on five points and Catalans Dragons just one place and one point better off.

What could possibly go wrong? The final round of the regular season begins today with Leeds in ninth spot, having picked up just three points since that Sunday afternoon in East Yorkshire.

More quality signings are needed if Rhinos are to challenge for the title in 2019 – assuming they retain their Super League status.

Peter Smith

Three points ahead – and secure in the Super-8s – are Huddersfield, Catalans and Wakefield. In the almost three months since Leeds beat Hull KR, only Widnes’ form – they haven’t picked up a single point – is worse.

And Rhinos’ lone victory in their last 10 league games was against Widnes last week. For the second time in three years, both times as defending champions, Rhinos are gearing up for the middle-eights Qualifiers and a fight to hang on to their top-flight status.

How on earth has it come to this? Even three months ago Rhinos weren’t playing particularly well. At Hull KR they trailed 8-0 early on and 18-12 at half-time and then had to hang on for the final 25 minutes after Kallum Watkins kicked a penalty goal to edge them ahead.

Watkins suffered season-ending knee damage three games later, which certainly didn’t help and Rhinos have had a bad run of injuries all season, but other clubs have been affected just as badly and coped much better.

Kallum Watkins.

Kallum Watkins.

Leeds have often got into a winning position, only to let it slip and what this season has proved is Rhinos’ current squad is not good enough to challenge at the top of the table.

The Grand Final victory nine months ago papered over some cracks which had begun to appear the previous year. Without Danny McGuire, who was arguably the best player in Super League over the second half of 2017, Leeds haven’t got anywhere near a similar standard.

Not replacing Keith Galloway when he left the club in February was a mistake, though Mikolaj Oledzki’s emergence as a Super League prop masked that to an extent and the policy of making only minor changes to Rhinos’ squad has run its course.

New director of rugby Kevin Sinfield has said he believes some of what made Rhinos so special has been lost over the past few seasons.

Changes are now being made to personnel, style of play and culture in the camp, though – obviously through no fault of Sinfield’s – it is too late to salvage a place in the Super-8s, which must be the absolute minimum a club like Leeds should be achieving.

Jordan Lilley and Jack Ormondroyd have gone out on loan and given an opportunity to play every week, rebuild confidence and show what they can do.

NRL-bound Ryan Hall is the only senior player confirmed as leaving at the end of the season, but Jimmy Keinhorst and Joel Moon also look set to move on and the future of players including Carl Ablett and Jamie Jones-Buchanan is yet to be decided.

Dom Crosby has been brought in to bolster the pack for the middle-eights and Tui Lolohea will be coming into the halves next season and other recruits are being sought. Experience gained by the likes of Oledzki, Cameron Smith and Jack Walker this year will stand the club in good stead, but more quality signings are needed if Rhinos are to challenge for the title in 2019 – assuming they retain their Super League status.

With Rhinos preparing for a Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final they could yet salvage something from a poor season, so it is not all doom and gloom, but much work needs to be done to reverse a downward trend.