THREE weeks ago, Leeds Rhinos celebrated a record-breaking Wembley triumph and the question being asked by the rest of Super League was: can they be stopped?
This weekend the picture looks very different as the Challenge Cup holders lick their wounds following a third successive defeat in the Super 8s and their supporters wonder where the next win will come from.
The home loss to St Helens, just six days after the Cup final, was perhaps understandable, but Leeds looked a pale shadow of the team which crushed Hull KR 50-0 when they collapsed to a 46-16 drubbing at Catalans Dragons last Saturday and were beaten 29-22 by Castleford Tigers at Headingley two days ago.
Having appeared odds-on to complete a historic clean sweep of trophies, finishing top of the table is no certainty and could even drop out of the top-two, losing home advantage in this month’s semi-final.
Winger Tom Briscoe was the hero 21 days ago, running in a record-breaking five tries and picking up the Lance Todd trophy as Challenge Cup final man of the match.
He admitted there is a feeling of deja vu in the Leeds camp after a similar run of results last year, when they lost all their four games after lifting the Cup for the first time since 1999.
“There is a sense of that, seeing how the last three games have gone,” Briscoe said.
“But it’s up to us, we know what went wrong last year and we have to put that right so it doesn’t happen again.”
That is easier said than done, with Rhinos still missing talismanic half-back or hooker Rob Burrow, who suffered a quad injury scoring a try in the Wembley triumph, plus long-term casualties Paul Aiton (broken arm), Liam Sutcliffe (knee reconstruction) and Jamie Jones-Buchanan (quad muscle injury).
To add to their woes, captain Kevin Sinfield limped out of Thursday’s game after picking up a dead leg and is already rated as doubtful for Friday’s must-win final league fixture at Huddersfield.
Despite that, Briscoe believes Leeds are still capable of going all the way to Old Trafford and lifting the Super League trophy for the first time in three seasons, if they can recapture the form which brought them seven straight wins up to the end of last month.
“We can get out of it,” he stressed. “We have shown over the season the heights we can reach, but over the last couple of weeks we’ve been really under-par.
“It is up to us to get that right next week, against an in-form Huddersfield. It is going to go down to the wire and it is disappointing the way we are finishing, but hopefully we can buck our ideas up and go into the semis on the back of a bit of a form and a good performance next week.”
The pressure increases with every defeat and Briscoe added: “If we had won on Thursday we’d have made it a lot easier for ourselves, but we have to win next week and then see what happens.
“It will be tough; Huddersfield are on the back of some really good form, so we have to sort ourselves out for that one.
“We will look at the tape of the Castleford game, see what went wrong and try to fix that up in training next week.
“Good teams don’t lose it that quickly. A bit of momentum is going against us, but there’s only us that can change that. It is down to getting some hard work done in training and doing everything we can to fix it up.”
Briscoe felt there were lessons to be learned from Castleford’s second win at Headingley this year.
The visitors scored 12 points at the start of each half and Briscoe reflected: “We showed some grit and determination to get back in there and to get back level, but then things went wrong again.
“We let in a few soft tries and we were back under the pump. That’s what we need to be better at, once we get back into the game we need to kick on, lift our game and score more tries to get into the lead.
“We are giving it everything, but unfortunately the last couple of weeks it just hasn’t gone our way. You create your own luck and at the minute we need to try harder in that department.
“Thursday was a massive step forward from the Catalans game, but there was still a lot of stuff that went wrong. We need to look at that and fix it up for next week.”