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When Leeds Rhinos stalwarts Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield both signed off on their illustrious rugby league careers with a 2015 grand final victory – the club's sixth in nine seasons – many thought that it marked the end of the "golden era" for the West Yorkshire outfit. However, few could have predicted the slide that would follow for Super League's most successful side.
The start of the 2016 campaign saw the Rhinos struggle without their instrumental skipper Sinfield and veteran front-rower Peacock, with the team hit by both a number of long-term injuries – to the likes of newly appointed captain Danny McGuire, Stevie Ward and Jamie Jones-Buchanan – and a lack of leadership on the pitch. When Leeds fell 56-12 to Widnes in the competition's second round, it was indicative of things to come.
Even when their injured stars began to return to action, the Rhinos still played without direction and purpose; by the time Super League split off into the Super 8s for the final third of the season, the Rhinos found themselves in ninth place (it could well have been tenth had fellow strugglers Salford not being hit with a points deduction for breaching the league's salary cap rules), with relegation an extraordinarily genuine concern.
Long-time coach Brian McDermott found himself under pressure unlike any other he'd experienced in his six-year tenure at the club, with chief executive Gary Hetherington also being roundly criticised for failing to adequately replace the Rhinos' retiring stars; underwhelming hooker Beau Falloon, signed from Australia's Gold Coast Titans, was symptomatic of the club's lacklustre post-season recruitment.
Thanks in no small part to the mid-season signing of James Segeyaro from Penrith, who replaced a struggling Falloon, the Rhinos managed to turn their fortunes around – putting together a positive run of form that saw them comfortably top the Middle 8s, losing only once in their final seven league fixtures.
However, for a fanbase so accustomed to success, anything but a push towards reclaiming the Super League crown in 2017 would be less than satisfactory for the Rhinos' faithful. With a mediocre start to the season, and question marks remaining over both the club's recruitment and game-plan on the pitch, renewed calls for Brian McDermott's job rang out loudly as the Rhinos went down by a record 10-66 to in-form Castleford last month.
Although the loss itself was unexpected, with the Rhinos being the overwhelming favourites with bitcoin-orientated betting site Sportsbet.io (visit website for the latest odds) to triumph heading into the game, it was the shocking manner in which Leeds' back line capitulated that irked the side's supporters so much.
Hetherington could not ignore the humiliation of that defeat, ensuring fans that the board would weigh up their options based on the club's performance over the following four weeks. Since that dismal performance at The Jungle, Leeds have again turned things around somewhat, with back-to-back thrashings of Wakefield and Catalans Dragons in their last two outings leaving the side only one point off the top of the table.
This weekend, the side face Huddersfield in a West Yorkshire derby that could well decide on the future of Brian McDermott. The bitcoin betting lines have the Rhinos as 1/2 favourites heading into the clash, although the Giants could be worth backing at 3/2 – especially with front-end mining tools such as guiminer.org making it easier than ever for punters to mine their own bitcoins.
That being said, if key Leeds players including Kallum Watkins, newly signed Australian hooker Matt Parcell (who replaces a departing Segeyaro) and Liam Sutcliffe all put in performances on a par with recent weeks, Huddersfield may well be on the end of another pasting to go with their 30-0 defeat at Leigh several weeks ago.
For the first time in over a year, the Rhinos are flowing with confidence; their starlets seem to thrive the most in high-stakes contests, as they've proved with their dominance in Old Trafford finals. There's certainly going to be a lot on the line: not only could a decisive victory over their rivals see Leeds secure Brian McDermott's future at least until the end of the season, but it may also allow the club to put the nightmare of that embarrassing Castleford defeat – and the past 12 months in general – firmly behind them as they continue their push towards the end-of-year playoffs.
Source: Leeds Rhinos via Facebook.