LEEDS RHINOS look like they will need to create yet more history if they are to achieve a seventh Grand Final success.
In losing a fiercely-fought contest at Wigan Warriors last night, Brian McDermott’s team now look destined to finish the campaign in sixth position having lost four successive Super League games for the first time in eight years.
No team has ever prospered at Old Trafford from such depths.
The fact Leeds have done so twice from fifth under McDermott’s command, however, suggests they should still not be written off, especially as they have the creative and organisational quality of Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire still to return.
This duo, who failed to recover in time from injuries suffered in their Challenge Cup final success a fortnight ago, were obviously missed last night along with the strike threat of Joel Moon, the Australian centre who started a two-game ban.
Leeds, as always, were competitive and spirited in front of 20,265 spectators, the biggest Super League crowd of the year.
Indeed, once Liam Sutcliffe’s bizarre try in the 46th minute brought it back to 14-6, they looked readied to push on.
But uncharacteristic errors, notably from England winger Ryan Hall, who twice dropped possession, and some poor kicking options saw them lose momentum, allowing the champions a lifeline they duly took with 10 minutes to go.
Ben Flower, an aggressive presence throughout at prop, angled perfectly into Sean O’Loughlin’s short pass to drive through Jamie Peacock and around the stranded Zak Hardaker from 10m.
Matty Smith converted and tagged on a drop goal in the final moments as Wigan quietly slipped into second ahead of their final regular game versus Warrington on Thursday.
The last time Leeds lost four league games on the bounce came under Tony Smith’s reign in 2006, a Challenge Cup semi-final defeat to Huddersfield Giants in the middle of it all stretching that to five.
The current side will look to ensure the latter is not replicated when they visit Hull FC on Friday, but Huddersfield need only to win either tomorrow’s home game against the Airlie Birds or Friday’s visit from St Helens to consign the Rhinos to that sixth-place finish.
Leeds – who missed the chance to go third last night – have not finished as low since 1996 when a team lacking any real cohesion or leadership slumped in at 10th before Paul Caddick and Gary Hetherington rode to the rescue.
Wigan set the tone early on last night, Flower driving back England winger Tom Briscoe fully 10m in one tackle with the help of Liam Farrell.
They were swiftly up in defence and physical, too, led, as always, by the colossus O’Loughlin.
Wigan showed real enterprise with the ball as well, however, some slick interplay in midfield creating a number of half-chances. Peacock neutralised the first when the 36 year-old prop tracked back to produce a great cover tackle on the always-probing full-back Matty Bowen.
But he was penalised and, from there, Joe Burgess lapped up Blake Green’s clever grubber in the 13th minute.
Smith converted and did so again 10 minutes later when he improved his own score, a 30m intercept in front of the posts after Hardaker had crabbed across field and sent out a dangerous pass.
The Leeds full-back, under the spotlight given he is being investigated once more for alleged homophobic abuse, had spilled in another heavy tackle to gift Wigan possession earlier but, in fairness, the 22-year-old responded well to those erratic moments.
Smith added a penalty after the hooter, Kevin Sinfield having lost possession following a rattling tackle from O’Loughlin.
However, Leeds returned following the break with more directness and fire themselves, Sutcliffe scoring after Wigan three times failed to deal with a loose ball initially hacked on by Jimmy Keinhorst and chased down by Hall and Mitch Achurch.
Sinfield improved and, as Leeds raised the intensity, Wigan looked rattled especially as Brad Singleton delivered some punishing hits in the middle.
Unfortunately, though, there was not enough poise and control, their moment passed and Wigan rode out the storm.
When Hall then lost the ball on the first tackle, Michael McIlorum darted blind to get Dan Sarginson over but the video officials ruled the centre did not have sufficient grounding.
Briscoe had to deny Burgess from a Farrell kick and, though Sinfield showed great awareness to fire his drop-out into touch, Leeds could not make that possession count.
When another drop-out was conceded, there was no answer to Flower’s power but Leeds, nonetheless, will be undeterred.
Wigan Warriors: Bowen; Charnley, Hughes, Sarginson, Burgess; Green, Smith; Flower, McIlorum, Crosby, J Tomkins, Farrell, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Powell, Pettybourne, Clubb, Bateman.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; T Briscoe, Watkins, Keinhorst, Hall; Sinfield, Sutcliffe; Bailey, Aiton, Peacock, Delaney, Ablett, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: Leuluai, Ward, Achurch, Singleton.
Referee: B Thaler (Wakefield).
Super League table: Page 5.