It is a little-known fact that Brian McDermott is the only creature in the world with thicker skin than a Rhino.
Tough questions, a barrage of criticism and moments of soul searching have been themes of McDermott’s tenure in charge of the Leeds Rhinos, but they have all been outweighed by vast amounts of success.
Rarely, however, has the Leeds coach had to face the ignominy of defeat quite so directly as immediately after the Rhinos’ 33-20 defeat at Catalans Dragons on Saturday.
While McDermott bemoaned a lack of “resistance” from his side in his post-match press conference, the journalists in attendance were forced to strain their ears and cameramen had to steady their equipment as the affair was drowned out by the ferocity of the Catalans players bellowing their victory song back in their changing room.
It wasn’t so much a sign that it hadn’t been McDermott’s day but rather a summation of Leeds’ last seven weeks, when they have won just once in Super League – against struggling Hull KR.
And yet the former Royal Marine still ended on a defiant note: “Give me 75% of my squad and we’ll get through to the Challenge Cup final – and once we get a sniff I know we can win it.”
There have undoubtedly been periods when the Rhinos have been very, very good this season. For 60 minutes against Castleford at Elland Road they were a hurricane of fearless, thrilling rugby league. Likewise, in the victory at St Helens, Leeds clicked into gear and the standout side in the competition failed to keep up.
“We got dragged into trying to play like Leeds,” Saints captain Jon Wilkin told Sky Sports after the March clash. “There’s only one team that’s good at that, and it’s Leeds.”
The problem is, brief glimpses aside, Leeds haven’t been playing much like Leeds for the rest of the year either.
McDermott himself offered the most damaging assessment in the wake of the Magic Weekend defeat to Castleford: “I haven’t said this about my team for a while now, but I thought we were soft.”
But, while they have been well off the pace in recent weeks, Leeds’ struggles can perhaps be pinpointed in the consecutive one-point defeats to Wigan and Hull – neither result which, on the face of things, a team should be ashamed of.
Hosting Wigan, Leeds managed to establish an 8-0 lead which they defended for the majority, but played an overly cautious, momentumless game that ultimately came back to bite them on the backside.
The following week, the Rhinos opted for the complete opposite, attempting to throw the ball around Hull at every opportunity, and instead got steamrolled by a huge Black and Whites outfit.
At times it has been hard to tell whether this is a team in transition or a side facing an identity crisis.
If anything, Leeds have proved once and for all that size really does matter. Props Brad Singleton, Mitch Garbutt, Adam Cuthbertson, Anthony Mullally and Nathaniel Peteru have all faced or continue to face spells unavailable. Keith Galloway, meanwhile, retired a month into the season.
This goes a long way to explaining why McDermott’s men have fallen off the pace as the season has continued. Without the power to punch holes in opposition defences and establish a foothold in matches, Leeds have only managed to show their class in short bursts, while they are being forced back onto their own tryline without the ball.
Further injuries to the ever-reliable Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Carl Ablett, Matt Parcell and Kallum Watkins have only made matters worse.
But the Rhinos have made a habit of facing adversity and coming out the other side all the stronger for it, so much so that at the time of writing they are still second favourites to lift the Challenge Cup.
McDermott’s confidence may have seemed misplaced in the wake of recent results, but his words could soon be made to look prophetic.
For that to happen Leeds quickly need to remember how to play like Leeds again.