WHEN Jamie Jones-Buchanan describes Leeds Rhinos as “fragile” you fully realise just how bad things are for the defending Super League champions.
Perhaps the very epitome of what has made the club the finest of the summer era - tough, resilient and so unflinching – it must break the veteran second-row’s heart having to use such a word.
Everyone knows the defence of that Super League title, an eighth since 2004, disintegrated months ago; now they are battling for their very survival with a genuine fear the famous club could be relegated for the first time in its 128-year history.
Rhinos begin life in the Qualifiers this afternoon when they host Toulouse Olympique, the French club who are one of three Championship outfits with genuine hopes of eventually earning promotion at the expense of Leeds, Hull KR, Salford Red Devils or Widnes Vikings.
Rhinos safely negotiated the Qualifiers two years ago, breezing home with six wins from seven, but that was a gnarled team that still included the likes of Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire, still had so much champion quality.
The current one does still have some stellar personnel – and on paper enough not to be troubled in the weeks ahead – but they are presently in a real mire and look bereft of form and confidence.
The common consensus is that five victories is enough to avoid relegation but Leeds have won just once in the last 11 matches; the fear is they may, crucially, be forgetting the knack of it all.
Their meek surrender in Sunday’s Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Warrington Wolves, with some alarmingly bad defence, will only have given Toulouse encouragement they could be ripe for the taking, even at Emerald Headingley.
The bookmakers do not think so – they have Sylvain Houles’s side as 6-1 to win in a two-horse race – but these Qualifiers have already sprung one surprise with Championship London Broncos brilliantly winning 21-20 at Super League’s bottom side Widnes Vikings on Thursday.
Leeds, Hull KR and Salford, then, have all been put on warning and it is a fact not lost on former Great Britain star Jones-Buchanan who made his Rhinos debut in 1999 and won seven Super League titles with his hometown club.
“It is desperate; we look pretty weak and fragile at the minute,” he said.
“That’s not what we need going into the Middle Eights (Qualifiers), but we’re there because of performances and some of that fragileness throughout the season has brought us down to these deep levels.
“There’s a lot of it we need to fix up. Some of it we won’t be able to fix up this year in terms of the standards we are used to knowing at Leeds.
“But certainly we have got to fight for our survival and we’ll be up against some strong and spirited Championship sides.
“I have been fortunate to have experienced it all at Leeds and this is right there with some of the more disappointing periods of my career.
“But I have always said these challenges make us stronger.
“They make great stories and when you look back in years to come you learn great lessons from them.”
If Leeds did suffer a shock defeat this afternoon, it would be the first time they have lost to a lower division side in 33 years when, in 1985, they fell 5-2 at Barrow in a John Player Special Trophy first round tie.
Toulouse finished third in the Betfred Championship, but Jones-Buchanan warned: “We can’t look at any team and underestimate them.
“If you do that you get burned. We’ve got two Championship sides first up and it’s really important we get a great start and start to build a bit of confidence going into playing some Super League games.
“Toulouse have got some lads with Super League experience and they are in the middle-eights for a reason, because they deserve to be there.
“They are a good side and they’re challenging for Super League.
“Toulouse are going to come here wanting a scalp and we’ve got to get at our very best.”
If Leeds can re-discover their very best then there will be no issue. It is imperative they do or their task is going to get far more difficult very quickly indeed.