From the sporting summit to the bottom of the heap

The absence of Kevin Sinfield has been felt by Leeds Rhinos during their current struggles.
The absence of Kevin Sinfield has been felt by Leeds Rhinos during their current struggles.
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Leeds Rhinos have gone from treble-winners to bottom of Super League. But, says Grant Woodward, they’re not the first side to suffer a sudden reversal of fortune.

ONCE you reach the top, staying there is never easy. Just ask Leeds Rhinos. Last year’s treble-winners have lost 12 of their 15 competitive games this season, are bottom of Super League and last week were knocked out of the Challenge Cup by Huddersfield Giants.

A decade of success suggests the club’s current plight is likely to prove a temporary blip rather than the start of a long term decline. But they’re not the first to discover that the hard climb to reach the summit can soon leave you staring into the abyss.

Their boozy open-topped bus tour and trip to Downing Street were still fresh in the minds of England’s cricketers when they headed Down Under in 2006 to defend the Ashes they had clinched the previous year in what has gone down as one of the greatest Test series in history.

So what happened? Captain Michael Vaughan, the scorer of three centuries on the previous tour of Australia, was ruled out by a knee injury and opener Marcus Trescothick flew home before the Test series with depression.

Humbled in their first warm-up match as they lost to a Prime Minister’s XI by 166 runs, Steve Harmison proceeded to bowl the first ball of the Test series to second slip as Australia racked up 602-9 declared and never looked back, winning the series 5-0 including a triumph in Adelaide which saw England snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Three years ealier, Martin Johnson had lifted the Web Ellis trophy above his head in Sydney, causing England rugby fans to feel confident that the team’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph would herald a golden era. Instead it ushered in a decade of backstabbing and failure. Having dominated the international game and conquered Australia in their own backyard, England spent much of the next 13 years as international mediocrities.

A club versus country row meant coach Sir Clive Woodward jumped ship within a year and a flurry of retirements saw the 2003 team quickly broken up.

The Rugby Football Union scaled back investment in the national team and, aside from a freak World Cup final appearance in 2007, success on the field proved elusive as coaches came and went in quick succession.

The 2011 World Cup saw England’s off-field antics – including claims of dwarf tossing in local bars and leaps from passenger ferries – reflect dismal performances which culminated in an early exit. Last year’s tournament, on home soil, saw England become the first hosts not to make it out of the group stages and cost Leeds-based head coach Stuart Lancaster his job.

In football, the path from heroes to zeroes is arguably even more pronounced. Between 2008 and 2012. Spain’s intricate passing style of tiki-taka had brought them two European Championships and one World Cup. Tipped to defend their world crown in Brazil in 2014, they suddenly discovered teams had worked out how to counter their style of play.

Vicente Del Bosque’s team became the fifth defending champions in history to exit in the group stage, but the first to lose their opening two games and therefore the quickest to ever go home.

Leeds Rhinos can take some comfort in the fact that all these examples of sporting reversals of fortune have had happy endings. England’s cricketers currently have possession of the Ashes and, under coach Trevor Bayliss, are climbing the world rankings. The appointment of Australian Eddie Jones has brought England’s rugby team their first Grand Slam in 13 years while Spain are among the favourites to win this summer’s European Championships.

Some have bounced back quicker than others, however, and fans of Leeds Rhinos will certainly be hoping their own team’s recovery arrives sooner rather than later.

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