DEFENDING champions Leeds Rhinos surely have too much quality to struggle for long, but they need to find some form quickly before a drama turns into a crisis.
After three games the team who won every available trophy last year are without a point and Saturday’s 32-28 loss to Catalans Dragons in Perpignan left them bottom of the Super League table.
It is early days, but Leeds’s next four matches – Huddersfield Giants (at home), Wigan Warriors (away), St Helens (home) and Castleford Tigers (away) – are against teams who finished in the top-five last year and beat them at least once.
Were they to lose all those, which is not impossible on current form, Leeds could find themselves in a fight to secure a place in the Super-8s when the competition splits after round 23.
The top-four is already a tall order. Castleford lost their opening three games last year and finished fifth, despite some notable results including two wins at Headingley.
On the other hand, should Leeds win their next four, which is also within their capabilities, their poor start to the year will be considered merely a blip.
Leeds have come through tough patches before, but that was with Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock in their squad. They travelled to France without seven players due to injury and Mitch Garbutt was beginning a two-game ban.
Despite that there was ability in the team to come away with the points. They showed that by fighting back to within four points after trailing 24-8 early in the second half.
But Leeds weren’t smart enough; they made a series of errors at important times in the game and conceded some costly penalties. The glaring example came after they had got within a converted try of levelling the scores going into the final 10 minutes.
Anthony Mullally, the towering forward making his second substitute appearance since joining Leeds last year from Huddersfield, committed a shoulder charge in front of the visitors’ post and Pat Richards accepted the gift.
That meant Leeds needed to score twice to get something from the game. They did manage a late touchdown, but ran out of time.
It was five tries each, but Jordan Lilley missed two of his six shots at goal, while Richards had a 100 per cent record.
There were signs of improvement for spells in the second half, though Leeds let Catalans off the hook whenever they seemed to be getting a grip on the game.
Their first try, Kallum Watkins touching down after Tony Gigot dropped the ball behind his own line, was scrappy, but the way Watkins fed Mitch Achurch and he dashed clear to put the supporting Liam Sutcliffe over, was top class.
Ryan Hall’s try – off good handling across the line – was also well worked; Sutcliffe provided a clever kick to Ash Handley to score and Watkins came up with an outstanding finish late on.
Watkins’s return to form, after a slow start to the year, was a major positive for Leeds, but coach Brian McDermott took little comfort from the close nature of the final scoreline.
“There were too many periods when we were loose and defensively too many soft periods in the early stages,” he said.
“But we had a crack, had a dig. We’ve been here before [Perpignan] when Catalans have got momentum and we never got back in the game.
“I am really pleased the players found a way to get back in the game and effectively made it a close encounter, but I won’t be consoling myself or consoling the players too much with that, because we were poor with the ball in too many areas and too many soft periods.”
Dave Taylor scored Catalans’ first and last tries, both from close range.
Jodie Broughton, the ex-Huddersfield winger making his debut, made a fine break and equally good kick to put Richie Myler in.
Krisnan Inu out-paced the defence a minute into the second half and Gigot atoned for his earlier error by finishing well after Todd Carney and Glenn Stewart had combined to impressive effect.
According to McDermott, hard work is the way out of Leeds’s current slump.
He said: “We have got to make sure we keep working and keep trying to get everything out of the working week.
“We’ve got a working week to be as good as we can be and then come game day give it a shot.
“That’s all we ask, be as good as you can be through the week and try and improve and try and fix things up, but in reality we are not in a good place and we’ve got to fight our way out of it.”
Catalans Dragons: Gigot, Broughton, Inu, Duport, Richards, Carney, Myler, Taylor, Pelissier, Bousquet, Stewart, Horo, Baitieri. Substitutes: Mounis, Bosc, Mason, Elima.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Handley, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sutcliffe, Lilley, Galloway, Burrow, Singleton, Ferres, Keinhorst, Delaney. Substitutes: Cuthbertson, Achurch, Mullally, Walters.
Referee: B Thaler (Wakefield).