AS THEIR stalling Super League title defence was dealt another blow of Friday evening – this time in the form of a Hull Kingston Rovers-sized hammer – Leeds Rhinos’ players, management and fans must again have been left wondering where exactly it has all gone wrong in 2016?
As Gavin Willacy pointed out in his ‘No Helmets Required’ column for the Guardian last week, Leeds are currently on course for the worst title defence in the Super League era.
For a club who have emerged as the dominant force in the English game since the switch to summer thanks to seven Grand Final triumphs, finishing top of the table three times and winning two Challenge Cups, being second-bottom after nine games with just two wins is a somewhat unwelcome sight.
Aside from a tenth-place finish in the inaugural season 20 years ago, the Rhinos have never finished outside of the top six in Super League and at this early stage of the season they can still comfortably make the Super 8s.
Nevertheless, the only wins for Brian McDermott’s men have come against the equally-hapless Huddersfield Giants and an erratic St Helens side. Indeed, even crisis club Wakefield Trinity Wildcats came away from Headingley victorious.
It goes without saying that Leeds have been found wanting defensively, but only the aforementioned Hull KR have conceded more points so far this season. To make matters worse, the 230 the Rhinos have let in is nearly half their total of 477 conceded after 23 rounds of the 2015 regular season.
The question is though: Why have the defending champions been so woefully below the high standards they have consistently set over the past decade-plus?
Much of it has been put down to the retirements of Kyle Leuluai and Jamie Peacock, plus Kevin Sinfield’s decision to switch to rugby union, and there are few clubs who not miss that trio.
The Opta statistics bear out Peacock’s influence on the defensive side, with the veteran prop making more tackles than any other Leeds player in 2015 with 952 – fourth-highest in Super League. He also made 182 from marker – fifth-highest – showing his ability to stifle attacks and stop opponents gaining valuable metres.
One player who has been missed too is Stevie Ward, who is expected to be out until at least next month after undergoing knee surgery over the winter.
Ward ranked in the top 10 for both tackles and marker tackles in 2015, along with having a remarkably low error rate – and the latter of those leads onto another area where Leeds have struggled this season.
Given McDermott’s side play an attacking game focussed around keeping play alive with repeated offloads – no side offloaded more in Super League in 2015 – it is perhaps not surprising this risky strategy leads to an increased chance of errors.
No surprise then that the Rhinos were ranked fifth for errors in 2015 with 291, but their lack of execution is underlined by them leading the way in errors in 2016 with 123.
Their failure to look after the ball has meant the likes of Ryan Hall, Zak Hardaker and Kallum Watkins have not been able to replicate their destructive form of last season and blunted the attacking threats Leeds have in their backs.
To make matters worse, Hall and Watkins both rank in the top five for individual errors so far this season.
As mentioned before though, the Rhinos are still capable of making the Super 8s, so it would be too early to write them off just yet – especially with the abundance of talent still in the side and still to return from injury.
And it is worth remembering McDermott’s first season in charge of Leeds saw them finish fifth in the table before going on to win the Grand Final. That, at least, might be something for them to take inspiration from.
Land of the Giants: Perhaps the only thing more startling than Leeds’ collapse is the one suffered by Huddersfield Giants, who have gone from being just one game away from a maiden Grand Final appearance last season to propping up the table.
Under head coach Paul Anderson, the Giants have built on the progress made during the stewardship of Nathan Brown to become regularly top four finishers.
Yet 2016 has, so far, yielded just one win and Anderson conceded in the wake of last weekend’s 38-34 loss to Castleford Tigers – which saw the Giants leading until late in the game – his side are now fighting to avoid ending up in a relegation scrap.
Stat of the week: Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ 32-18 triumph over Salford Red Devils means they have taken just 10 games to record more wins – four – than they did in the 23 regular season rounds last year.
On another positive note, the Red Devils and their fans made headlines for all the right reasons this week, with a group of supporters starting a collection to fund gifts for those affected by the crowd trouble at Huddersfield the week before.
The initial target of £500 was quickly exceeded and it is hoped the gifts will be presented ahead of the home game with Leeds.
Charnley crosses the divide: The news Josh Charnley will leave Wigan Warriors to join Sale Sharks in rugby union’s Aviva Premiership produced much debate about whether the salary cap should be increased, or even abolished, to prevent British rugby league’s brightest young talents being cherry picked by richer clubs from the 15-man game.
Charnley follows in the footsteps of arguably the most successful player to switch from league to union in Jason Robinson, who left Wigan to join Sale in 2000, and is expected to operate at full-back or on the wing like the England World Cup winner.
Chris Ashton, Stephen Myler and Kyle Eastmond have all established themselves in the other code since switching too, although there are plenty who have tried to make the transition and struggled.
Sam Burgess’ recent foray into union is the obvious example – his spell coming to an end at least partly due to the disgraceful treatment he received after England’s World Cup exit last year – while Chev Walker, Lee Smith and Barrie Jon-Mather all had stints which ended abruptly.
Andy Farrell’s spell in union came at the end of his rugby league career and although he played at international level, it was little to write home about. Instead, his biggest influence has been as a coach, following the likes of Phil Larder, Joe Lydon and Shaun Edwards.
Perhaps the biggest worry though should not be that players are being tempted over to union, but that the flow of players from union to league has virtually stopped since the 15-man game legalised professionalism in 1995.
As for Wigan, they had no answer to form Super League team Warrington Wolves after going down 28-16 at home. However, the win came at a cost to the Wolves as stand-out scrum-half Chris Sandow suffered a hamstring injury which could sideline him long term.
Elsewhere, Marc Sneyd’s drop goal ability came to the fore again as a resurgent Hull FC edged out St Helens 17-16. And the Catalans Dragons climbed up to fourth with an impressive second half display which saw them blow away Widnes Vikings 21-8 in Perpignan.
Kingston Press Championship round-up: James Lowes does not come across as a man prone to introspection, but the Bradford Bulls head coach was left questioning himself after they slumped to a 46-28 loss at home to Sheffield Eagles.
“At the moment I’m not doing them justice in giving them self-belief and confidence in themselves,” Lowes Bradford Telegraph & Argus.
“I’ve got to find a way pretty quick or else in the not too distant future I’ll be a spectator rather than a coach.”
Despite that loss, Bradford remain fourth in the table on points difference from Halifax and Featherstone Rovers, with the former edging out the latter 20-19 in their weekend encounter.
Surprise package Batley Bulldogs remains second after suffering a shock 28-12 loss at Oldham, while Leigh Centurions continue to lead the way with a 40-18 trouncing of Dewsbury Rams.
At the other end of the table, Swinton Lions won the battle of the bottom two by beating Workington Town 28-22.
The road to Blackpool: Bloomfield Road could be playing host to two non-heartland teams in the final of this season’s iPro Sport Cup after London Skolars and Gloucestershire All Golds were kept apart in the draw for the semi-finals.
However, they must overcome Keighley Cougars and York City Knights respectively if they are to get through to the final at the Summer Bash on May 28.
Amateur score of the week: Valley Cougars 16 London Chargers 23, Conference League South. The Chargers, formed three years ago out of a merger between South London Storm and West London Sharks, made a winning start on their bow in the highest level of amateur rugby league in the South of England and Wales.
Valley Cougars have been in existence for 15 years and are based in Treharris. They were Conference League South champions in 2014 and finished top of the table last year as well, only to lose to Nottingham Outlaws in the Grand Final.
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