IT’S DEBATABLE which is the biggest story in Super League at the moment, Leeds Rhinos’ fall or Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ rise.
A year ago, after the 2015 Magic Weekend, Rhinos were top of the table and Wakefield bottom. The situation hasn’t been entirely reversed, but now Leeds are heading for a relegation battle while Wildcats force their way upwards towards the top-four.
Remarkably, Wakefield are now only four points behind Wigan Warriors, Catalans Dragons and Warrington Wolves and a further two adrift of table-topping Hull. Surely, at some stage, they will hit a wall and their form will dip, but there is no sign of that happening yet. When they lost to Hull a month ago it appeared maybe the bubble had burst, but since then they have won four successive games, including victories over Warrington and Catalans.
It is amazing what confidence can do for a team. Twelve months ago Wakefield would have lost their Magic Weekend showdown with the French high-fliers. That match was placed in the graveyard slot, opening the second day of the event. When the fixtures were published it looked like possibly the poorest tie on the card, but instead the fans who turned up early last Sunday were treated to an absolute cracker.
Wakefield rallied from 14-0 down and then clawed their way back after Catalans retook the lead. Last year, had Wakefield been penalised in front of the posts with the scores level and just three minutes left to play, the kick would have found its mark.
Even if it had hit an upright, as Pat Richards’ did, it would have bounced to a team-mate, rather than into the grateful arms of a Wakefield player.
And at this stage last season Jacob Miller certainly wouldn’t have had the belief to attempt a drop kick from the halfway line in the subsequent set, never mind the skill to actually hit the target.
Trinity are tremendous fun to watch at the moment, because they are playing like a team who have had the pressure taken off. When their revival began, tomorrow’s trip to Salford Red Devils looked like a crucial fixture, but after the bonus victories over Warrington and Catalans it is no longer a must-win.
With a seven-point cushion over ninth-placed Hull KR, Wakefield’s place in the Super-8s already looks secure.
For a team who finished 11 points behind their nearest rival when the competition split last year, that is a remarkable achievement.
It’s not unknown for a team boss to be sacked after being named coach of the year, but nobody has ever been axed and then gone on to win the award at another club. Chris Chester looks a good bet to be the first. Wakefield’s resurgence has come with the same players who were bottom of the table when Chester took over at Easter. Similarly, only three of the Rhinos men on duty in last year’s treble-clinching Grand Final are no longer at the club.
They – Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai – were an exceptional trio, but Leeds don’t have the 12th-best squad in the competition. Even so, they are two points adrift at the bottom of the table and their only real objective now is to avoid relegation. Assuming more injuries don’t strike, Leeds are likely to have a fully-fit squad available by the time the Qualifiers begin in July, which should make them too strong for most, if not all, their rivals.
But the concern is that when players have returned, performances haven’t improved. That is crucial as, even if they avoid the drop, Rhinos can’t afford another season like this one.
In contrast to Wakefield, Leeds are playing with no confidence and are trapped in a vicious circle: it is impossible to win without confidence, but confidence only comes with winning.
Brian McDermott is still Rhinos’ most successful coach and, after three championships and two Challenge Cups, he does not deserve to be sacked.
But if and when Leeds are confirmed in the middle-eights, either he or chief executive Gary Hetherington will have to give serious thought as to whether he has taken the club are far as he can.