Leeds Rhinos 6 Leigh Leopards 13: Difference in ambition apparent in dismal defeat for Rohan Smith's side
For Rhinos supporters that have seen a club stuck in a state of flux since the golden generation, Sunday's defeat to a Leigh Leopards side with one eye on Wembley was as predictable as it was depressing.
It was further proof that an impressive stadium and a bulging trophy cabinet only take a club so far.
Leeds were competitive as they have been in most games this year but competitive is not good enough for a club that won eight Super League titles in 13 years.
The Rhinos have not finished higher than fifth since their last Old Trafford win in 2017 – and that is not about to change after sinking to a 12th defeat of this season.
The build-up to the home clash with Leigh was overshadowed by Blake Austin's hasty departure after a bizarre series of events that reflected poorly on the club.
Austin made no secret of his desire to stay at Headingley but there was no contract on the table and he decided to cut his losses by joining relegation-threatened Castleford Tigers before Friday's transfer deadline.
More worrying for Leeds fans was the apparent disconnect between chief executive and head coach following Rohan Smith's claim that he was in the dark about the deal until the last minute.
Of the team that reached last year's Grand Final – which is increasingly looking like a freak one-off as some supporters feared – seven players have now moved on, with several more set to follow at the end of this season.
Promising prop Sam Walters is among those preparing to leave Headingley, much to the frustration of Leeds fans that appreciate the value of a towering front-rower who runs his size.
If recruitment and retention is a marker of ambition, the Rhinos are lagging a long way behind their Super League rivals.
Leeds' recruitment has been uninspiring for a while now and the signs are worrying as attention begins to switch to 2024, in contrast to Wigan Warriors who have already announced a string of eye-catching additions including Walters and former Rhinos team-mate Kruise Leeming.
If Leeds have signings of their own lined up in addition to sole recruit Mickael Goudemand, it is high time they looped in their supporters – because at the moment they look like a club without a plan.
Leigh are showing where ambition can take a club after assembling a squad capable of fighting for silverware on two fronts, in their first season back in Super League no less.
The Leopards face Hull KR in the Challenge Cup final on Saturday but there was no hint of distracted minds in a thoroughly committed performance that earned them a first win at Headingley since 1984 and a league double.
Only Josh Charnley and Zak Hardaker were rested by Adrian Lam and the Leigh boss was rewarded handsomely.
A third defeat in a row for the Rhinos was greeted by a smattering of boos from the home crowd as the club's season continues to fizzle out.
Without Austin and Richie Myler who is nursing a foot injury, Smith had to field a makeshift spine and it showed.
Leeds dominated the first half but looked toothless until Jarrod O'Connor scampered over to level the scores after 33 minutes.
James Bentley injected some life into proceedings with a slaloming run and a quick play the ball, giving O'Connor the chance to dart over next to the posts.
Rhyse Martin knocked over the conversion to nudge Leeds ahead after they had conceded the opening try in the form of a sucker punch.
Leigh spent much of the half camped on their own line but the O'Connor try aside they handled everything the Rhinos threw at them, which amounted to very little.
On one of their rare forays into Leeds territory, Edwin Ipape sensed an opportunity 10 metres out and as is usually the case with the powerful Papua New Guinean hooker, he could not be stopped.
Ipape picked out James McDonnell on the line and outmuscled the Rhinos back-rower to touch down.
Ben Reynolds missed the conversion from out wide but Leigh had served notice of their threat in good ball.
The Leopards had earlier shown their defensive resolve to drag down O'Connor just short of the line during a lengthy spell of Leeds pressure.
Lam would have been disappointed with the lapse late in the half but the interval gave Leigh the chance to reset.
Instead of going in with a commanding lead, the Rhinos were only 6-4 to the good and quickly found themselves up against it after the restart.
Justin Sangare was forced off with a foot injury and Leeds were behind again four minutes into the second half when Tom Amone crashed over under the posts.
Perhaps sensing another dart from Ipape, the Rhinos were caught napping on their line and that was all the encouragement Amone needed to step his way through.
Reynolds knocked over the conversion to make it 10-6 and Leigh had the chance to put the game to bed when Sam Lisone was sin-binned for a trip on former Leeds winger Tom Briscoe.
The Rhinos limited the damage to a Reynolds penalty following a high shot by Luis Roberts but two scores was a big ask for a side that had shown little in the way of attacking threat.
Leigh were almost made to pay for not going for a drop goal when O'Connor lost the ball attempting another barge over.
The Leopards did not make the same mistake again, Gareth O'Brien putting Leeds out of their misery with a one-pointer six minutes from time.
The Rhinos are not out of the play-off race – with four points to make up in the final six rounds – but another late charge would only paper over the cracks.
Leeds Rhinos: Hooley, Macdonald, Roberts, Martin, Handley, Johnson, Sezer, Holroyd, O'Connor, Oledzki, McDonnell, Bentley, Smith. Substitutes: Sinfield, Lisone, Donaldson, Sangare.
Leigh Leopards: O'Brien, Briscoe, Chamberlain, Gildart, Nisbett, Reynolds, Lam, Amone, Ipape, Mulhern, O'Donnell, Hughes, Asiata. Substitutes: Mellor, Wardle, Davis, Seumanufagai.
Referee: Marcus Griffiths.