It is almost a year since Leeds Rhinos memorably won at Wigan Warriors to seal their place in the 2022 Super League Grand Final.
Jarrod O’Connor dived over for his first try in blue and amber and James Bentley scored twice.
The 20-8 victory was founded on an outstanding rearguard display; a collective desire that came to characterise Rohan Smith’s team in their extraordinary transformation from no-hopers to title contenders.
There was a certain romance to it all, of course.
The big-city Rhinos, the eight-time Super League champions with all their history, were back at Old Trafford for the first time since the glory days of the not-too-distant past.
Around 4,000 Leeds supporters floated out of the DW Stadium, scarcely believing the staggering turnaround their club had enjoyed since Smith’s arrival a mere four months earlier.
The Rhinos lost the following week to all-conquering St Helens, but there was no shame in that.
The men from Headingley were back on the map and back throwing punches at the business end of the season. They felt relevant again.
Fast forward 12 months, however, and the Rhinos are reeling after being stuffed 50-0 by Wigan on their own turf yesterday.
Leeds Rhinos miss out on play-off spot for first time in four years
A sixth successive year outside the top four is assured, an indication of the club’s wider struggles to reinvent themselves since their last Grand Final win in 2017.
But it is the indignity of missing out on the play-offs for the first time in four years that will raise the most questions.
Yesterday’s capitulation was a painful and humiliating view of a club with a stadium, fanbase and history which few can match.
Headingley’s South Stand, the most famous terrace in rugby league, is noted for its passionate fans who follow their team with almost religious zeal.
South Standers can be brutal at times, but they cannot be deceived.
They made their displeasure known at half-time and again at the final hooter with a chorus of boos.
“You’re not fit to wear the shirt!” was also given an airing during the game and again at the end.
The odd supporter called for Smith to go, less than a year after he took them to the Grand Final. It was that sort of day.
Smith said: “The crowd are entitled to be disappointed and upset that we didn’t make it more of a contest on the scoreboard.
“We all share that frustration – we live and breathe it every day.
“People don’t want to hear about rebuilding and transitions around this club but that’s the reality.
“If you look at that full-strength Wigan team and how they’ve been rolling, with all the obstacles we’ve had with a very young team today, then you’re going to have some rough days.
“But it’s the only way that you learn, get better and build as a team.”
To many Super League sides, reaching Old Trafford and then finishing just below the play-offs 12 months later would be regarded as a decent couple of seasons.
But to Leeds Rhinos, a club who have gorged on silverware since a seminal title success in 2004, it is tantamount to failure.
They should have kicked on after last season’s Grand Final, but a quick glance at the Super League table shows they have not.
There have been mitigating circumstances with injuries and illness to key players such as Richie Myler, Aidan Sezer and Zane Tetevano.
Yesterday saw 18-year-old Jack Sinfield and Morgan Gannon, 19, named in the halves with Myler and Sezer absent.
Questions asked over recruitment
But recruitment has been questionable with the likes of Zak Hardaker and Tom Briscoe allowed to leave.
They have thrived since joining Leigh Leopards, helping the club to their first Challenge Cup in 52 years.
Other proven performers such as Matt Prior (retired), Liam Sutcliffe (Hull FC) and Brad Dwyer (Hull FC) departed but did the Rhinos’ off-season recruitment strengthen or weaken them?
Prop Sam Lisone has found some decent form in recent weeks and James McDonnell has been a consistent presence in the second row.
But a number of ‘project’ players were signed from Championship clubs and overall the recruitment for 2023 did not – and has not – set many pulses racing.
Indeed, the Rhinos’ recruitment over recent seasons does not compare too favourably with the work done by other leading clubs.
There has been no Bevan French or Jai Field type players arriving at Headingley in recent times.
One man who can increase the heartbeat on a rugby league field is Nene Macdonald, who has shown glimpses of his class since joining from Leigh.
After recently returning from Australia for the birth of his child, though, it remains to be seen if he will pull on a Rhinos jersey again.
Macdonald would not be the first Leeds player to leave the club under a cloud this year.
After a fall-out behind the scenes, Kruise Leeming exited Headingley in March, went to the NRL and is now Wigan-bound next season.
More recently, as Leeds fought to stay in the play-off race, a bang in-form Blake Austin was allowed to join Castleford, which again raised eyebrows.
The decision was seemingly made above Smith’s head by long-serving supremo Gary Hetherington, who still clearly retains much power at Headingley.
Many fans are fuming that highly-rated Sam Walters, one of the best young forwards in Super League, is also joining Wigan next year.
Rohan Smith: Collectively we’ve got to be better
Speak to Smith about his squad and he talks endlessly about the unity within the group and the young homegrown talent within it.
He said after yesterday’s game: “As I’ve said multiple times this year, I think there have been a lot of good things happening and development of players.
“A lot of blokes that are in that room now have done well – but collectively we’ve got to be better.
“Another pre-season and some key additions will assist that but there’s a lot of growth from within that group still.
“Eradicating regular disruptions will be a key focus in the next period as we prepare for next pre-season.
“It’s still very important we respond to this. The character of the group will be on show.
“They’re a good bunch of people and will stick together. We’ll fight back.”
In fairness, Leeds’ spirit has shown itself this season with some rousing wins at home to Catalans and Huddersfield and away to St Helens, Wigan and Warrington.
There have also been some dismal losses against Wakefield, Castleford (twice) and away to the Giants last month.
When you consider players such as Gannon, Sinfield, O’Connor, Harry Newman, Tom Holroyd and the emerging Alfie Edgell and Max Simpson, Smith has a point about the talent in Leeds’ ranks.
But it is about supplementing that with the right senior acquisitions and Smith will hope that 2024 recruits Matt Frawley, Mickael Goudemand and Lachie Miller will help to engineer an upturn.
One or two more signings, possibly again overseas imports, also look set to arrive to bolster the squad.
After yesterday’s humbling against Wigan, Leeds lie eighth in the table with 14 losses from 25 games.
For a club of the Rhinos’ stature, that is simply not acceptable and Smith knows that next season will come the time for serious progress.