IT MAY be tough at the top, but Leeds Rhinos are discovering it is even harder at the bottom.
Rhinos have become accustomed to big games since the turn of the century, including nine visits to Old Trafford and eight Challenge Cup final appearances, but those glory days seem a far cry from the club’s current plight.
Though it is less than two years since Leeds were last crowned champions, their eighth Super League triumph, a dismal start to the campaign has left them facing the very real prospect of a second successive battle against relegation.
Rhinos survived some tense moments in the Qualifiers last year after finishing ninth in Super League, but their season ended on a dismal note with a home defeat by Championship side Toronto Wolfpack.
Better things were expected this term following Dave Furner’s appointment as head coach and with three high-profile overseas players added to the squad, but just one win from their opening seven games has left Rhinos second from bottom, above Huddersfield Giants – who have a game in hand – on points difference.
The low point so far was reached last week when Leeds, leading 16-8 with six minutes left, were beaten 18-16 at home by promoted London Broncos.
That was a shattering blow to players, staff and fans alike, but Furner is determined not to be distracted from his long-term goal of reviving the club’s fortunes.
A member of the 2004 Grand Final-winning side, alongside current director of rugby Kevin Sinfield, Furner admits to being “frustrated” by both results and performances, but believes hard work is the route out of his side’s predicament.
“I am very focused,” said Furner, a 48-year-old Australian who has experience as a coach and assistant coach in the NRL.
“I haven’t had a look (at the table), I just know I need to focus on the team.
“As coaching staff we need to prepare the team in the best way we can. That’s the challenge week-in, week-out.”
Rhinos have shown flashes of what they are capable. Their one win to date was at in-form Salford Red Devils and they led unbeaten St Helens by 10 points at half-time before falling away in the second half.
Furner’s team have proved they can attack, but porous defence on their own line and a vulnerability under kicks on the final tackle have proved costly. Despite that he remains upbeat and insisted: “I think we’ve got to stop looking at negatives.
“We have had some really good opportunities of beating the most consistent teams and certainly there’s been things taken out of our hands that stops the momentum. They can be big game-changers.
“For a team that’s fighting to get that respect and wins, sometimes that goes against you, but I always look at where the team can be improved and keep talking about competing at training and then going out and competing on the field.”
The loss of Steve Ward with a long-term knee injury was a significant blow.
Fellow forwards Carl Ablett and Dom Crosby have yet to play this year, captain Kallum Watkins has missed the last two games with a knee problem and Jamie Jones-Buchanan made his comeback from a pre-season injury only last week.
Furner admitted: “I would like to get a bit more stability in the team. We have had some injuries, but I am liking what the squad produce at training and we have just got to keep working hard because I feel the harder you work the luckier you can be.”
Rhinos face a tough game at Catalans Dragons on Saturday followed by a quick turnaround to a Thursday evening derby against visitors Castleford Tigers.
Things certainly are not getting any easier, but Furner feels he saw some encouraging signs last week. He said: “We probably had our least missed tackles, we made 400-odd metres more and we made eight line-breaks to four – and you think, ‘how did you lose the game’?
“The loss itself takes a bit of confidence out of the team, but we have got to dust ourselves off and look forward to this week.
“It is as simple as that because when you do have a look at some of those stats they lean in our favour.
“You’ve got to take some positives out of there. We have been focusing heavily on our defence and those last plays – we just can’t stop until we’ve got the ball back.
“What I like about the group is they want to keep working for each other. That’s what we need to do. That game (last week) can take a bit of confidence out, but we also have to look at what we did really well.
“We were 8-0 down and in the second half we refocused and got ourselves back in the game and we were leading. It hurts, but now it’s about this week and Catalans, their players, their threats and how we want to play.
“That’s what the players turned their attention to coming in on Monday. That is what they are focusing on.”