LEEDS RHINOS’ latest defeat, 14-10 at Salford Red Devils, was their most frustrating of the season so far.
Rhinos got what they deserved from another poor performance, but it was a game they could and should have won.
A year ago, playing with confidence, Leeds would have got through this sort of match with something to spare.
Salford were solid and well-organised, but no better than that.
They defended strongly, took a couple of chances and had an outstanding individual in returning stand-off Robert Lui, but they were beatable.
Leeds had enough pressure to score a match-winning number of points.
The penalty count was eight-five in their favour and they forced five goal-line drop outs, which was one encouraging aspect, to Salford’s none.
But their attack was very poor and that is what condemned them to defeat.
Both their tries came in the last six minutes, but up until then – though they had a couple of touchdowns disallowed – they rarely looked like finding a way through.
Confidence, or lack of it, is obviously a big factor. Rhinos aren’t backing themselves when they have an opportunity.
As has been the case all year, the effort was there and Rhinos defended better than they have done in most matches this season, though two lapses were costly.
But Rhinos don’t seem to have any attacking structure, they are lacking a game manager and there’s no really effective kicking game. Poor attack then puts pressure on the defence.
Obviously injuries and the absence of some influential players played a part in Leeds’ fourth straight defeat.
It was literally all hands on deck for Rhinos with their entire 26-man senior squad either playing or injured.
Ashton Golding’s return from the ankle injury he suffered at Widnes two months ago was the positive.
He scored their second try and was Leeds’ best player, along with Jamie Jones-Buchanan who put in a big effort and played the full 80.
Golding made a couple of errors, losing possession on the first tackle and failing to take a high kick, but he defended well and made some good metres going forward.
Golding was on one wing, with Zak Hardaker moved back to full-back and Liam Sutcliffe into the centre.
Sutcliffe has had a tough return from long-term injury and would probably benefit from a rest. That wasn’t possible, so a better option might have been to field him in the back-row with Carl Ablett in the centres.
Golding’s pace and enthusiasm was welcome, but it was one in, three out with Joel Moon (groin), Adam Cuthbertson (biceps) and Josh Walters (foot) joining the casualty list.
Players still missing were Tom Briscoe, Ryan Hall, Stevie Ward, Brett Delaney, Jimmy Keinhorst and Brett Ferres.
Jordan Baldwinson was brought in from dual-registration at Featherstone for his first appearance of the season and Jordan Lilley got a similar recall.
Baldwinson, an unused substitute against Huddersfield earlier in the year, got only 10 minutes in the second half and so had no opportunity to show what he can do.
Lilley, introduced soon after half-time, had a dig and Leeds looked more effective when he was at half-back and Rob Burrow moved to hooker.
Rhinos picked up an injury late on when Mitch Achurch hobbled off, after damaging an ankle.
If he doesn’t recover and nobody else comes back into contention, Leeds will have to go outside their senior squad for Friday’s visit of Hull.Teenage forward Cameron Smith, who has just moved up to the under-19s, warmed up at Salford as 18th man.
Leeds’ attacking display was summed up late in the first half, after they received a penalty in Salford territory.
Early in the subsequent count Beau Falloon took the ball into a tackle and hurled it backwards, to the feet of Michael Dobson who dropped on it to snuff out the danger.
The visitors were 8-0 behind at that stage.
They pressed for much of the first half and limited Salford to just two attacks.
They scored on the first of those when Logan Tomkins took the ball from acting-half, ran forward and dived over the line.
It was a soft try and Leeds Rhinos have conceded far too many in that fashion this campaign.
Gareth O’Brien converted and then Dobson booted a penalty moments later.
Rhinos had earlier opted not to go for goal from a penalty 40 metres out, in front of the posts.
Going for six instead is admirable, but – in the current circumstances – they need to start taking the two when it’s on offer. Four minutes into the second half Leeds made a good break, but that came to nothing.
In the next set Lui landed a 40-20 and dummied over following the scrum.
Dobson’s conversion completed Salford’s scoring.
The home team only had one other meaningful attack in the entire game, in the final seconds of the opening period, following a powerful run from Justin Carney.
Leeds got over the line without reward twice before scoring.
Referee Phil Bentham decided Kallum Watkins had been held up, after Burrow’s run.
That was a rare opportunity for Watkins, who isn’t getting enough of the ball.
Then a Burrow pass found Brad Singleton, but the in-goal judge ruled he had knocked-on.
It looked like Leeds would be nilled for the first time since 1998, but Keith Galloway, who started on the bench, barged over with six left and Hardaker converted.
Then Golding crossed after Danny McGuire, Ablett and Watkins had handled, but there was no goal and Salford held out for a deserved win.
It was only the second time they have beaten Rhinos in 36 meetings during the summer era.
Leeds had not lost away to Salford since November, 1993 – a run of 20 straight wins.
The defending champions have lost eight of their opening 10 First Utility Super League fixtures and are second from bottom in the table.
Defeat on Friday would make this their worst start to a season in the summer era – they have now equalled their opening to the disastrous 1996 campaign – and it is hard to see where the next win is coming from.
The top-four and a place in the semi-finals is already out of sight and qualifying for the Super-8s is an increasingly tall order.
A run of victories now would make that achievable, but on current form visits to the likes of Bradford and Leigh in the final third of the season looks most likely.