THE evidence suggests otherwise but coach Brian McDermott is clinging to the belief Leeds Rhinos can achieve “something special” this year.
McDermott spoke positively about his team in the aftermath of yet another comprehensive defeat, but increasingly it seems all last season’s treble-winners have left to play for is retaining their Super League place in 2017.
Relegation is almost unthinkable for a club which has dominated the competition for more than a decade, but unless they turn a corner soon, their top-flight status will be in genuine danger.
Leeds’ 40-8 defeat by Wigan Warriors, at the Magic Weekend in Newcastle, was their 14th in 17 competitive fixtures this season.
They have lost all but three of their league matches and are six points behind eighth-placed Widnes Vikings with only eight games to play before the competition splits.
A place in the Qualifiers, involving Super League’s bottom four and the leading quartet from the Championship, appears inevitable and, on current form, Leeds would not be among the favourites.
“I don’t know whether I am giving up on the Grand Final,” McDermott insisted after his side’s latest loss.
“I don’t think I am, but numerically we just might be out of touch at the moment.
“But I want to mix with and train with and work with and pretty much live with a group of men who just give it absolutely everything each week.
“There’s an example today – I don’t know if we were ever going to come up with that game after about 10 minutes after half-time, but we never, ever gave in.
“There’s something there to work with, something there that’s good for the future.”
Leeds gave a debut to 19-year-old academy forward Sam Hallas and McDermott feels his young players are gaining valuable experience.
They were without 10 players due to injury or suspension and certainly did not lack effort, but almost everything else was missing in another below-par display.
They started well, going ahead for the third successive game, but crumbled when Wigan – who never got into top gear – put them under pressure.
Offloads by Adam Cuthbertson created both Leeds’ tries and that was one positive sign.
Their first was scored by Kallum Watkins, after Keith Galloway and Jordan Lilley had also handled, inside six minutes.
It was only 12-4 at the interval, Willie Isa having scored a brace of tries, both converted by Matty Smith, but Leeds conceded three more in the first 15 minutes of the second half, to George Williams, Dom Manfredi and Ben Flower.
Mitch Achurch, a forward playing on the right-wing, crossed for the champions during a spell when they were down to 12 men with Zak Hardaker in the sin-bin for a professional foul, but Wigan finished with a flourish as Oliver Gildart and Dan Sarginson crossed for tries in the final five minutes and Smith took his tally of goals to six.
Leeds’ Danny McGuire and Hardaker both had touchdowns disallowed by video referee Ben Thaler and McDermott claimed: “It was a tough way to lose and a tough scoreline I thought.
“Obviously, the crucial part was just after half-time. After that period when we leaked those tries, we got back in it and kept fighting. Before that period, just before half-time, the game was a contest.
“I thought it was really tough for our fellas to concede that many points, because I thought we gave it absolutely everything.”
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Handley, Watkins, Keinhorst, Golding, McGuire, Lilley, Galloway, Jones-Buchanan, Singleton, Ferres, Cuthbertson, Walters. Substitutes: Mullally, S Hallas, Achurch, L Briscoe.
Wigan Warriors: S Tomkins, Manfredi, Gildart, Sarginson, Charnley, Williams, Smith, Crosby, Powell, Flower, Bateman, Isa, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Tautai, Mossop, Sutton, Burke.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham)/J Cobb (Leigh).