It has been a baptism of fire for new Leeds head coach David Furner. Despite the club’s struggles in 2018, it was a widely held opinion that the Rhinos would come back firing this season. But less than two months in and with only one win from seven matches, the pressure is really starting to build on the eight-time Super League champions.
The Rhinos sit joint-bottom of the Super League table and supporters have not been shy in expressing their anger at the current situation. This isn’t uncharted waters for Leeds, especially in recent times, having finished outside Super League’s top eight in two of the last three years. The problem for Furner though is that the last time the club flirted with the prospect of relegation in 2016, they responded the following season by winning the competition. A repeat of that in 2019 is now a pipe dream.
Prior to the start of this season there was a good feeling at the club. Furner’s arrival was met with a warm approval and the signings of Trent Merrin, Konrad Hurrell and Tuimoala Lolohea from the NRL sparked renewed optimism. Not only this, the redevelopment of Headingley Stadium saw Leeds take on a complete new look for 2019 and big things were expected of Super League’s most successful club.
The season started with tough defeats away to Warrington and Wigan but worrying signs were put down to Furner and the club’s new signings finding their feet, especially when they thrashed early season pace-setters Salford 46-16. A first win on the board was a relief and a very impressive showing away to title favourites St Helens saw Leeds edged out 27-22, but despite the loss there were signs the Rhinos could compete with the best again.
Now with a more favourable run of games and a return home to play their first match at the new-look Headingley Stadium, it was time for Furner’s men to start putting points on the board. However, Wakefield had different ideas and they outplayed a lacklustre Rhinos side to spoil the homecoming and leave supporters with more questions than answers.
Another disappointing defeat away to Hull followed and on Friday night Leeds returned to Headingley to take on newly-promoted London Broncos. Despite the Broncos beating Wakefield and Wigan in the first six rounds, this was a game the Rhinos fans expected to win.
But like has been the case for more than 12 months, they failed to meet the fans expectations as London ran in a last minute try to win 18-16. The players walked off the pitch to a chorus of boos and fans were particularly critical of a number of big name signings who they feel aren’t living up to the hype.
Furner’s men do still have time on their side with 22 rounds remaining; however, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that they are now relegation candidates. This may seem a little extreme to suggest after only seven matches, but it’s more than just the results which are concerning for a side evidently low on confidence and lacking leadership.
It seems many bookmakers still believe Leeds are too good to go down, but they have been on a downward spiral for some time now. London, Huddersfield, Salford and Hull KR are all favoured for the drop before them, but that could soon change if the Rhinos form doesn’t.
Perhaps the biggest concern is their woeful defence, which is the worst in Super League. It was best summed up on Saturday when watching England surrender a 31-0 lead in their Rugby Union Six Nations match against Scotland. As their defence capitulated in the second half my colleague turned to me and said “they are doing a Leeds Rhinos.”
It’s not just the defence; there is also a lack of creativity going forward, with Lolohea and Richie Myler struggling to strike up an effective half-back partnership. London comfortably dealt with nearly everything thrown at them on Friday and kept the Rhinos scoreless for the entire first half. Then when they needed something in the final few minutes, they looked short of ideas and a natural leader.
There is no doubting Furner has a huge job to turn around a toxic atmosphere at Headingley and his big name players need to start producing. If they don’t and their current level of performance continues, then Leeds are going to find themselves in a fight for survival and this time they might not be lucky enough to escape.