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Leeds Rhinos have continued their unbeaten run in defeating Salford 30-12 on the weekend, and are fast becoming the dominant team of this decade. In a period where the standard of their opposition is rising, Leeds? record speaks for itself. Since the start of the 2003 season, that is, in the last 58 games, they have lost eight and drawn five. Indeed the last time a Leeds player has faced defeat was some nine months ago. Can you remember what you were doing nine months ago? Neither can I.
Needing only three wins to clock over the required 22, Leeds looks destined to claim the Superleague record for the most consecutive victories, a record set by Bradford in 1996. Such a streak is all the more impressive considering the growth of second tier teams (such as Hull) in the past three years, and the fact that Leeds doesn?t play in a competition filled with the also-rans which Bradford faced when the record was set.
Whilst Leeds has been able to make winning look easy, there are some key elements behind the team?s rise to the top of the English Superleague ladder. For one, Leeds has been blessed with a minimal amount of injuries. In the past three seasons they have used a total of 65 players, compared to Wigan who required 72 players, and an unlucky St Helen who utilized 73.
So is it pure luck that has gotten Leeds this far? The victory on the weekend which occurred without players such as Matt Diskin, Danny McGuire, Chris McKenna, Francis Cummins and Gareth Ellis (pretty much a third of their top team), seems to suggest otherwise.
Leeds? success is also a testament to their recruitment policy. Whilst many ESL teams have looked to a range of ?quick fix? signings (usually imports) in order to stimulate success, Leeds prefer to develop the players they have. In the past three seasons Leeds have only debuted five players, and remarkably during the 2004 season they introduced no new faces. Coach Tony Smith told the Yorkshire Evening Post he believes it is ??good not to have massive changes within the ranks?, and it seem this policy has borne fruit. It is widely recognized that the longer a team is together the more cohesively they play, and this provides obvious advantages for Leeds at the start of each season. Whilst other teams are building combinations with 4 or 5 recruits, Leeds are winning with a team that has remained undefeated for the first 6 rounds of the competition for three years running.
However what truly makes Leeds a great team is their ability to consistently overcome teams of a lesser quality. Tony Smith regularly plays down his teams chances whilst talking up the opposition. While this is almost a custom for the modern day coach, his team seems to take it as gospel. We all expect top teams to falter from time to time (such as Wigan this year), but Leeds are very rarely involved in massive upsets. In fact the last time Leeds was defeated by a non ?Big Four? team was in Round 24, 2003. Their opposition, ironically, was Castleford.
Leeds? momentum has continued to build into this weeks Grand Final rematch, with rumours young gun McGuire will be making a shock return. Smith recently said ?It is hard to be near your best every week?. However there must be some of his ESL colleagues wondering just how he can make it look so damn easy.