The massacre against Castleford was seemingly the nail in the coffin for a Rhinos side that up until last season looked brilliant. This showed in the trophy cabinet, winning seven trophies under Coach Brian McDermott’s leadership. However, there’s been indicators that the team have been struggling long before last season – but where did it all really go wrong?
Many fans and neutrals blamed last season’s poor season on the flood that left them without a training ground and the fact the leadership trio of Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai hadn’t been replaced. However, the problems came as far back as 2014.
In 2014 the Leeds squad main objective was to finally win the Challenge Cup, with the tag line “mission complete” once they’d achieved this with a 23-10 victory over Castleford – the side ironically that are now the team to beat. They made no secret of their joy after winning the trophy and ending the 15 years of hurt since their record win over London Broncos in 1999. But straight after that, the Rhinos lost their final six games, going from potential treble winners to all too happy with filling that final piece of the jigsaw.
Unfortunately, with that win the squad was never upgraded to gradually phrase out those three players mentioned above, who at this time were in their final year of their careers. The short term still looked good for the Rhinos, but were they forgetting about the future?
Entering 2015 and, like the season before, the squad had a big objective – to win the treble. The whole squad looked determined, especially Zak Hardaker – now with Castleford – who would go on to win the Steve Prescott Man of Steel. They were labelled unbeatable by some, despite just crawling over the finish line after their emphatic Challenge Cup win over Hull KR at Wembley. They in fact lost nine games that year, so obvious cracks remained, often when the squad players were called upon the Rhinos looked vulnerable.
So, the last two seasons mentioned Leeds completed objectives. What this meant was the management thought everything was okay and despite the surprise signing of Brett Ferres, the Rhinos were very light and lacked the experience they once had. Cue an act of God to really compile their problems. And what we’ve got in 2016 is a team quick to point the finger at no proper training facility, even though the likes of Castleford and Wakefield – who finished above Leeds in 2016 both have less to work with on that front. In a season to forget, the defending champions failed to make the play-offs as they were left to fight for their Super League status in the qualifiers. For the players and fans this was an embarrassing situation to be in, the club had gone from playing in major finals to been involved in a relegation battle in less than 12 months.
Fast forward to the present time and unlike 2014 and 2015, Leeds didn’t come close to completing any season objectives but still didn’t improve their squad. The blindness in not replacing the ‘holy trio’ with 1000+ appearances for Leeds between them, and for Peacock and Sinfield experience at captaining their country, was absolutely criminal. What we’re seeing now is a squad still unprepared and led by Brian McDermott, a man who doesn’t like to use his youth or squad depth even if he really has to. On many occasions McDermott has used only three subs and left the likes of the winner of the Championship’s Young Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016, Jordan Baldwinson kicking dust on the sidelines, despite him recently praising Baldwinson’s progression.
So when Leeds rocked up to The Jungle to face a Tigers side sporting many past Rhinos players, all of which are playing miles better than they were at Leeds, it’s no surprise in the score-line. Forget the injuries, or whatever the excuse is this year for McDermott and his players. The 17 players that took the field that night should have done a lot better, but it must be considered that McDermott had placed six players in that team that had played for either Featherstone or Bradford the previous Sunday. They were basically lambs to slaughter, the likes of Baldwinson, Lilley and Walters playing despite knowing their coach clearly doesn’t trusting them enough to give them a chance before injuries strike. And I’m not talking about a chance they should have had this season. I’m talking about the chances they should have had last season, especially in Baldwinson’s case.
The scary thing for Leeds now is that with McGuire, 34, Burrow, 34 and Jones-Buchanan, 35, they have even more experience leaving with no sight of the youth being ready enough to take over, all because the management were to blind to see faults as far back as 2014.
McDermott said after the defeat that Leeds “weren’t far off”, but when you lose 66-10 with a squad at least five of which you don’t trust enough to play regularly, then you couldn’t be any further off. It’s clear from my perspective and many other fans that Sinfield and Peacock, in particular, had far greater input into the team than what is expected; as now without them the Rhinos look horribly thin of squad quality, void of ideas in attack and lacking any plan B approaches when times get hard.
I don’t think I’m the only one to cast this level of doom and gloom over the Rhinos, but their own Head Coach doesn’t trust the future of the club enough to take it forward and he’s evidently out of ideas. All of that isn’t an observation from one match but something evident in 2014, but blindness and loyalty to players is no longer good enough which has meant Leeds are at best another five or so years from trophy glory again.