WHAT WAS supposed to be a gala occasion will instead make for a tense 80 minutes at Emerald Headingley tomorrow night.
Visitors Castleford Tigers’ form is disappointing enough, but Leeds Rhinos have been even worse.
Tigers have slipped to seventh in Betfred Super League and lost four successive games for the first time in a single season under coach Daryl Powell, including last Friday’s Coral Challenge Cup exit at Hull. They are still in the hunt for the play-offs and Grand Final glory, but need to start winning soon.
Rhinos are 10th and their Cup humiliation at Bradford Bulls four days ago was their worst result since the 1980s – and arguably ever. Completion of Headingley’s £45m redevelopment is something worth shouting about, but Leeds fans are unlikely to be in a celebratory mood.
With the team in decline, there have been accusations the club has prioritised what’s happening off the field ahead of results on it. Certainly a huge amount of time, effort and money has gone into the demolition of the old South and North stands and the impressive structures replacing them, but most of the work has effectively been done on hire purchase. Insurance and investment management group Legal & General have put up most of the cash and that will be repaid in rent by Leeds Rugby and Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
Rhinos have put some of their own money directly into the development, but – crucially – the club are still spending up to Super League’s salary cap. Maybe eyes have been taken off the ball in terms of playing performance, but the new ground is not a drain on resources and in fact the North Stand, which fully opens today, will provide extra income if all goes to plan.
It is a facility unmatched in rugby league and will attract outside events, as well as ensuring Headingley stages big games well into the future. Prices for hospitality have been increased to reflect the new facilities and a record 1,200 corporate guests are booked in this evening. That is remarkable, but keeping them interested will be the issue if the team continues to under-perform.
The iconic former South Stand had effectively been condemned and the North Stand was well past its use-by date. Rhinos had no choice, Headingley had to be brought into the 21st century and without new facilities the cricket complex was in danger of missing out on Test and World Cup matches.
Anyway, the work is now complete and, as well as causing a collapse in profits at local cafes, the builders’ departure means Rhinos boast the best purpose-built rugby stadium in Super League – for the time being at least. Unless the eight-time champions’ decline is reversed, it will at some stage in the near future become the best in the Championship.
Leeds aren’t too good or big to go down. Results like last weekend are humiliating for everybody involved and not acceptable for a club of Rhinos’ stature. They have gone from the sport’s most dominant trophy-winning machine to a laughing stock in less than four full seasons.
As director of rugby, Kevin Sinfield is facing criticism he didn’t receive during his playing career. Head of the entire rugby operation, he appointed Dave Furner – who was sacked last week – as coach and has been in charge of recent recruitment, but to suggest the current crisis is his fault is nonsense.
Leeds have gone downhill since winning the treble in 2015 and Sinfield was not responsible for anything which happened before he returned to the club last July.
However he fares as a manager, he will remain – at least until somebody even more outstanding comes along – the club’s greatest and most successful captain and one of the best players in its history, so failure wouldn’t tarnish his legacy.
It has not got to that stage. Remember, chief executive Gary Hetherington took charge in 1997 and Rhinos didn’t win the Championship until 2004. As Sinfield has said, it takes time. Obviously recruitment and retention must be better and it is crucial the right man is appointed as head coach, but the current squad are better than their recent results and overall responsibility, in the short-term, lies with them.