One of the hottest topics in Super League in recent weeks has been the very stuttering starts by current champions Wigan Warriors and former champions Leeds Rhinos! So what has gone wrong at these two benchmark clubs and how do they get out of the rut they seem to be caught up in right now?
First of all, much to the disappointment of some on social media, I am not in any way suggesting that either the Warriors or the Rhinos are going to do the unthinkable and get relegated at the end of this season, although I think people who are suggesting it can easily be forgiven for it. Nor am I saying the old cliche of “They’re too good to be relegated” because clearly at the moment they are not.
Before the season started, I said in an article on here that Leeds would probably make a slow start, and that Wigan could be something of a non-entity this season, without actually writing either of them off. I said that new coaches at both clubs would need time to put their stamp on their respective teams, both clubs would have to start rebuilding and installing a new culture and way of doing things. This was always going to be especially difficult for Wigan given the fact that they only had a temporary coach in charge for this season, although the long term future coach now looks like he might not be arriving at the DW Stadium at the end of this year!
In Shaun Wane and Brian McDermott, both clubs have lost highly successful coaches, and in recent years they have also lost the nucleus of very successful sides on the pitch, with names like Danny McGuire, John Bateman, Jamie Peacock, Pat Richards, Rob Burrow and Ryan Hall among others no longer plying their trade for these clubs for differing reasons. Having said that, both sides have also retained some standout talent, or brought in excellent new signings, the Rhinos in particular with their big name arrivals from Down Under.
Personally I do expect both the Warriors and the Rhinos to get out of the trouble they are currently in, but I also believe there is a changing of the old guard, certainly in some cases, on the horizon right now. For instance, as a Hull FC supporter who has seen my team beat both Wigan and Leeds recently, I’m now looking forward to this coming Friday, and saying that we’re making a step-up in quality and intensity of opposition with the visit of Wakefield Trinity, a very upwardly mobile club who gave the Rhinos a thorough beating last week.
What struck me most as I watched Hull come from ten points down to Leeds on Friday was the sheer inevitability of it all. Watching Hull run in no fewer than FIVE tries in 17 minutes was, for me as a Hull FC supporter a sight to behold and would usually have alarm bells ringing for Leeds fans. But instead, certainly in the body language of the players in blue and amber standing behind the goal line, was just almost expected by a team who looked beaten when 37-year-old back-rower Mark Minichiello burst through with consummate ease to almost gift wrap a try for Marc Sneyd from near halfway. This gave the Airlie Birds a two score lead which, even in the first half, looked insurmountable for the men from Headingley.
Try as they might, and be in no doubt that they really did try, the Rhinos never looked like scoring again after Tom Briscoe scored in the ninth minute. Their attack looked disorganised, even clueless at times. They made meters in the forwards, but their stale attack was easily policed by a rigid, well drilled defence, it all looked far too easy for the home side. The threat that Leeds had posed at St. Helens just a few weeks ago was completely absent, the players looked almost helpless at times, it was a very Un-Leeds Like performance.
Meanwhile in recent weeks the champions seem to have made a habit of losing to sides that they are expected to beat. First they lost at home to a Hull FC team who previously hadn’t won a Super League game since last June, albeit in Golden Point Extra Time. They were then beaten by the newly promoted, very committed London Broncos in a shock nobody saw coming, before then handing two points for a first win of the season to basement dwellers Huddersfield Giants on Friday night. It’s almost the biggest insult you can give the champions, is the fact that their only win so far this year, has come against the much beleaguered Rhinos at the DW Stadium.
So are the Rhinos and the Warriors becoming the embarrassing ‘Whipping Boys’ in Super League? I would go so far as to say that, given their starts to the season, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they don’t make the top 5 play-offs, with the likes of Warrington Wolves, St. Helens and Castleford Tigers in particular making strong starts the gap between these two currently fallen giants and the top 5 appears to be growing too large too quickly for them to be anywhere near the mix. After just one solitary win each in four games for Wigan and five for Leeds, it’s a long way back already!
Indeed in the case of Leeds, considering their lowly finish last year, is it almost to be expected that they will finish outside the play-off places? What I would point to in that case is the fact that they also finished in the bottom 4 in 2016, and bounced back to be champions in 2017, before failing spectacularly again last year. However this is not something that can be ignored, the fact remains that if indeed they do finish in the bottom 4 it will be the third time in four years that they have. However I do believe, when, or if they sort themselves out, they are a stronger team this year than they were in 2018, of that I have little doubt.
In the case of Wigan, only a fool would ever write them off. Could they be having a season similar to the one they had in 2006 when relegation beckoned? No I don’t believe so, but Adrian Lam, just like David Furner at Leeds, does have some very hard work before him to try and get the Warriors ticking in the way we’re used to seeing from them.
What I will also say certainly for the Rhinos on Friday, is that they didn’t give up, even when they knew the match was lost. They kept plugging away valiantly, but effort will only take you so far. As for Wigan, unlike Leeds they have not suffered any thumping defeats, they are always thereabouts and one scrappy win could, as in the case of Hull FC, spark a turnaround. The same could also be said for the Rhinos, because in games like at the Totally Wicked Stadium, they have been mightily close, but as we all know, losing becomes a habit, and it can be a very difficult one to get out of.