Leeds head coach Brian McDermott has highlighted the adversity that his team had to face in 2016, after their incredible, treble-winning success in 2015.
The Rhinos ended up in the Qualifiers section of the Super Eights competition, having to battle to retain their Super League status, in sharp contrast to the glory of the previous season.
McDermott felt that his players were compelled to cope with a series of challenges, though, that prevented them from being able to reach peak levels of performance.
“2016 was always going to throw some new challenges to this team,” he said.
“Challenges that not too many teams have had to deal with in recent history.
“The fact that Saints and ourselves are the only teams to have ever retained a Super League title shows just how tough the task we were facing was before a ball was even kicked.
“Added to this was the fact that this group were going to have to deal with life without three talismanic players, there was already some ingredients for a tough season without any of the external factors that were to have such a devastating effect.
“When we look back on the last year, we stayed in training for five more weeks than the likes of Warrington and Hull FC because of our Grand Final run and then the game against New Zealand at the end of October and four more weeks than most every other team.
“With our season lasting a month longer than anyone else, inevitably that knocked back the time when our players would return to pre-season, having only four weeks break when the players usually get six.
“We had factored that into our preparations and tried to get our usual seven week pre-Christmas programme into a four week period.
“We were confident we could pick things up in the New Year ahead of us heading to Florida for our camp to fine tune our preparations.
“However, as we all know, the floods at Christmas struck a huge blow to our plans.
“Having lost our home we were forced to live a nomadic life during an incredibly wet January and February where every available field was in high demand.
“We were fortunate that a number of organisations were very generous to us but naturally there was only so much time we could get on those fields.
“Anecdotally, I have estimated the impact of the floods meant we could do three times less skill, fitness and running sessions as we had done at the start of 2015 after Christmas.”
McDermott also believes injuries to players and the heavy recruitment that Leeds undertook in the close season also contributed to the team’s problems.
“The other major impact on our season was the injuries,” he said.
“Having reviewed the season with our medical staff, their records have revealed that there was no consistency to the type or severity of the injuries we were suffering and no patterns that we could have addressed to solve the problem as a whole.
“In reality, the lack of core work we had been able to do with the players was a contributing factor.
“We found ourselves in a catch 22 situation whereby we needed to get the players back to play but if they came back too early there was a danger of them breaking down.
“And this does not just apply to games but more specifically to the problems we had, it was very true in training.
“Even those who played at the weekend could not train during the week and if we tried to turn the intensity up in training to try and catch up the lost time from pre-season, the players were not in the condition to be able to take that.
“We recruited heavily for this season, particularly in our forwards, and it does take time on the field together for systems to be implemented.
“When we were planning for 2016 in mid-2015, you are thinking about how the new recruits will mix with the existing squad, that is particularly important in a salary cap sport.
“With Anthony Mullally, Keith Galloway, Brett Ferres and Beau Falloon, you are imaging them vying with the likes of Stevie Ward, Carl Ablett, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Brett Delaney for the team, whilst we were fortunate to bring in Mitch Garbutt six months earlier than planned, so he was intended to be with us from 2016.
“As it turned out, these lads had to step up to leading the side, which is a big ask at a new club with new systems and approaches.
“My major regret from last season was that I chased too many wins too early in the season. I did not grasp early enough how big the impact of a lost pre-season had had on us.
“The time allocated to preparing for our opponents and making sure we were ready for a game fitness wise, could have been utilised with a mini pre-season.
“Whilst that would have put results at risk with players going into games fatigued and under prepared specifically for opponents, we may have been able to pull out of the turndown sooner but that is the benefit of hindsight.
“It was telling that once we were able to get people on the field and we had returned to normality back down at Kirkstall our performances improved with wins of Hull FC and Wigan followed by our successful Qualifiers campaign.
“We missed out on the top eight by a drop goal against Widnes and I am confident we would have been able to produce that same form in the Super Eights had we got there.”
McDermott also acknowledges that 2016 was a novel experience for him in terms of the challenges that he was forced to face.
But those challenges have improved the structures and spirit at the club, which is better prepared for 2017, in his opinion.
“I was asked at the end of the season if this was the toughest year of my coaching career and it certainly was,” he said.
“The lowest point was undoubtedly the run of games that saw us embarrassed by Castleford at home, against Wigan at the Magic Weekend and then at Warrington.
“I had defended the players until that point but those performances were unacceptable.
“We had lost our way and we were all guilty of relying on excuses too much. It led to myself, all the coaching staff and the players questioning if we were doing everything possible to perform.
“Our honesty and integrity had come into question, things that had been integral to our dressing room for many years. It was a cross roads and we came through it.
“We lost to Catalans in the final play of the game and had a poor 15 minutes at the end of the Widnes game after that but the group came up with the answers and I know we will be stronger for the experience.
“The players will return for pre-season training at the start of November and we are in for a tough winter.
“However, we will do it in an environment that has been designed to allow them to fulfil their potential.
“Whilst the floods were devastating last year, it has allowed us to revamp Kirkstall.
“We have not just reinstated our former surroundings, we have enhanced and improved our facilities and that will allow us to enter 2017 with confidence.
“Off the field, Gary Hetherington has led a review of our total rugby operation from community through academy and right through to first team.
“There is a determination within the group that set in towards the back end of 2016 that will drive us forward over the next few months before we kick off the season at St Helens on February 9.”