Peter Smith’s verdict: Spineless Leeds Rhinos slump to new low at Bradford Bulls

Bradford Bulls celebrate at the final hooter.
Bradford Bulls celebrate at the final hooter.
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Spineless, rudderless, leaderless, clueless. An utter shambles.

In front of a 10,258 crowd and a national television audience, Leeds Rhinos embarrassed themselves and their fans when they slumped to one of – if not the – most humiliating results in the club’s history.

From 12-4 up, Rhinos managed to lose 24-22 to midtable Betfred Championship side Bradford Bulls, a team packed with part-time players, to end this year’s involvement in the Coral Challenge Cup.

It was no freak result. Bulls were the better side and, though only the width of a post prevented Leeds possibly sending the sixth round tie into extra-time, it would have been an injustice if the Super League team had gone through.

Once again, coach John Kear created some Challenge Cup magic.

Bradford – who were in League One last year – aren’t the best team outside the top-flight, but played with spirit and enthusiasm, defended for their lives and were much smarter than their higher league opponents.

Tom Briscoe scores late on for Leeds Rhinos.

Tom Briscoe scores late on for Leeds Rhinos.

Man for man Leeds should have been much better, but they aren’t a cohesive unit. Some sides are better than the sum of their parts, with Leeds it’s the opposite.

To rub in some salt, Bulls’ man of the match, Jordan Lilley, is on loan from Rhinos and has been told he won’t be retained when his Leeds contract expires in the autumn. He was one of three Bradford players, alongside Sam Hallas and Elliot Minchella, rejected by Rhinos as not being good enough.

Having not lost to lower division opposition in any competition between 1985 and last year, it has now happened to Rhinos twice in 17 matches, following the defeat by Toronto Wolfpack in the last round of the 2018 Qualifiers.

This latest fiasco was the sort of result which leads to a coach losing his job. Of course, that had already happened when Dave Furner was dismissed a week earlier and no blame could be attached to interim boss Richard Agar who had had only a couple of sessions with the team.

In context, the 10-minute spell in the first half when Bulls scored 18 unanswered points was a bad as anything seen from Leeds in decades.

Peter Smith

His decision to leave out scrum-half Richie Myler was a gamble which didn’t pay off, but teenager Callum McLelland has been knocking on the door for his first start and a Cup tie against second tier opponents should have been a good time to give him a go.

It was a tough baptism, but McLelland showed some promise early on, making a crucial tackle and scoring a well-taken try, before Leeds began shooting themselves in both feet and handing the game to Bulls.

The fact is, Rhinos have been in decline since the treble triumph in 2015, despite the blip of their Grand Final win two years later and unless something changes the downward spiral will inevitably lead to relegation.

It may not happen this year because bottom club London Broncos also seem to be in free-fall, though the danger will be real if Leeds lose to them at the Magic Weekend later this month.

Nathaniel Peteru shows his frustration at full time.

Nathaniel Peteru shows his frustration at full time.

However, if Toronto are promoted they will have the resources to be a much tougher proposition in 2020 than whoever does go down this year.

Leeds can’t keep relying on their rivals at the foot of the table being even worse. Once the initial shock of Saturday’s capitulation has worn off, everyone involved with Rhinos’ rugby operation needs to take a long, hard look at what he or she is doing.

Have the right players been recruited, in positions that needed bolstering? Are the players big, fit and strong enough? Are too many individuals in the squad not up to it?

Ultimately though, it is the players who have to get the job done. The side on duty yesterday should have been good enough. They weren’t and now have to take primary responsibility.

Rhinos have strike out wide, but lack a dominant half and aren’t tough enough in the middle, their pack were outmuscled by Bulls and most tellingly, Leeds are fragile mentally.

They got a decent start, but once things started to go wrong heads dropped and there seemed to be no idea how to get the momentum back. That has happened numerous times this year. In context, the 10-minute spell in the first half when Bulls scored 18 unanswered points was a bad as anything seen from Leeds in decades.

Callum McLelland stretches out to score Leeds Rhinos' second try.

Callum McLelland stretches out to score Leeds Rhinos' second try.

The bottom line is, Rhinos can’t defend – and to compound that they seemed to be competing with each other to see who could hand the ball over in his own half in the silliest manner. Knock-ons, forward passes, penalties in possession and without, all contributed to Bulls’ growing sense that it could be their day and, in fact, they didn’t have much to beat.

Most crucially, Leeds’ discipline was appalling. Twice in the second half they were penalised for dissent following a knock-on – and that was the biggest factor. After 80 minutes it was a needless second-half penalty which separated the sides.

Rhinos did some good things; the opening try created by Brad Dwyer for Tui Lolohea was nice, McLelland took his touchdown well and finishes by Harry Newman and Tom Briscoe in the second half were excellent.

But for everything that went right, a couple were messed up. For example, Jordan Lilley’s restart which bounced off Briscoe’s legs and was regathered by Bulls leading to their first try, allowing the hosts straight back into the game after Rhinos had scored first.

At 24-18 Lilley had a drop goal charged down, but Konrad Hurrell – back from injury, but not looking fully fit – didn’t pick up and Ash Handley was trapped in goal to concede a drop out.

The basics are letting Rhinos down and – after an 11th defeat in 16 competitive games this year – there is no sign of lessons being learned. They need a coach who can fix up their obvious frailties and bring them together as a team, but whoever comes in will have the same group of players to work with and on current form they aren’t up to it.

Leeds had already been split through the middle once when Dwyer’s break led to Lolohea’s fourth minute try, but a fine long pass from Lilley allowed Dalton Grant to respond almost immediately. McLelland stretched over from Dwyer’s pass and Liam Sutcliffe added his second conversion, but then it all went pear shaped for Leeds as Jack Webster, Hallas and Mikey Wood touched down. Minchella failed to convert the first two tries, but Rowan Miles improved the next pair and added a penalty before Sutcliffe pulled two points back to make it 22-14 at half-time.

Newman’s unconverted try cut the gap, but Milnes landed a penalty and when Sutcliffe hit the post following Briscoe’s touchdown – the winger having made a superb take from his stand-off’s kick and forced his way over – the game was up.