It’s incredible to think that just six months ago Leeds Rhinos completed their most successful season in existence. The 22-20 grand final victory over Wigan Warriors followed victories in the Challenge Cup final and a first place league finish, sealing a historic treble of domestic trophies and cementing head coach Brian McDermott’s place as the clubs most successful head coach.
Fast forward to the present day and the Rhinos appear to be a club in turmoil. Sitting 11th in Super league with just two wins from their opening nine fixtures, there is a real sense of unrest at Headingley. A minority of ‘supporters’ have even resorted to booing their own players, the majority of whom played a part in last year’s phenomenal achievement.
It’s fair to say Leeds didn’t have the best of preparations heading into the new season. Their Kirkstall training base fell victim to the freak floods of late December, leaving the Rhinos and sister club Yorkshire Carnegie effectively homeless. The loss of training pitches, medical facilities, indoor training areas and gyms obviously being a huge body blow to the club.
The loss of three players who had played a massive part in the clubs success was also fresh in the memory and the new players brought in were immediately put under immense pressure. In reality, Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield were rugby league freaks (in the nicest possible sense), the kind of player that any club would break the bank for. Leeds fans were extremely lucky to witness those two playing for the club at the same time, something which may be worth remembering the next time Keith Galloway doesn’t replicate Peacock’s typical match stats or Liam Sutcliffe misses that touchline conversion.
Ultimately however, like any sport, rugby league is a results based business. The challenge of seeing Leeds through this transitional period and building for the future should surely be one a coach relishes? The off field issues should motivate a coach to galvanise their group and in a way, create a kind of siege mentality. Brian McDermott has built a reputation of not showing much emotion, of keeping calm under pressure, but with Leeds close to crisis point and a group that needs rallying, is it time for a different approach?
Interestingly, we’ve already seen a negative change in McDermott’s persona, perhaps an indication as to his mentality in the current situation. Defeats in the past have always been met with brutal honesty regarding his team’s performances, however recent losses have been attributed to other outside influences. McDermott has started to look for excuses, something he has never felt the need to do before.
Tactically, McDermott has always had his doubters. Even during that spectacular 2015 season, Leeds often relied on off the cuff rugby and individual brilliance rather than any structured attacking play. Perhaps that is now more obvious because there isn’t a Jamie Peacock or a Kevin Sinfield to lead by example when the chips are down and things aren’t working out. McDermott has also failed to get the best out of a back five who are widely regarded as the best in the British game. The ball takes an age to get to the hands of two of Leeds biggest strike weapons in Kallum Watkins and Joel Moon while wingers Ryan Hall and Tom Briscoe are frustratingly used as extra forwards to plough the team down the centre of the pitch, rather than the top class attacking threats they are. McDermott also has a fondness for leaving a named substitute on the bench for the full eighty minutes, leaving pundits and supporters alike scratching their heads.
At times so far in 2016 the Rhinos have looked clueless in attack and amateurish in defence. Take the club’s most recent game against Hull KR for example, just seven months after giving Keiran Dixon nightmares under the high ball at Wembley, you would expect the coach to pinpoint that as a potential weakness. The Rhinos tested Dixon, who was on the wing this time around, with a high ball once throughout the whole match. And yes, he did drop it. In general this season the ball has all too often found itself in the wrong hands on the last tackle, forcing the team to run the ball or forcing kicks from players who aren’t responsible for those plays. The Rhinos have failed to score a point in five halves of rugby so far this season. Defensively, Leeds have let some appalling scores in. Huddersfield scored from a standing tap and go penalty from twenty metres out and on Friday ex-Rhino Rob Mulhern was able to waltz through the Leeds defensive line for the easiest try the young prop forward will ever score. Obviously, the players out on the field will make the decisions on what plays to make during the match but the planning, the confidence, the structure and the execution are ultimately down to the coaching staff and how they put those points across during the week’s preparation.
We are now almost a third of the way through the 2016 season and time is running out for Leeds to try and ‘play their way’ into contention. It may well take a big shock to spark the Rhinos into 2016, that could be getting a confidence boosting win over a Wigan or a Warrington for example, it could be a new signing to lift the squad, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the departure of the club’s most successful head coach, Brian McDermott.