In addition to the Club accolade, Watkins’ 19 tries in 29 games this season – often when fielded in a range of different positions - have shoehorned him in as a leading contender for the end of season Man of Steel award too. What will possibly mean most to Watkins, however, given the close-knit unit that the Leeds Rhinos camp is famously built on, is the pre-Challenge Cup Final comment from retiring teammate Jamie Peacock, who named Watkins as potentially the “best British centre” in rugby league history.
It was a bold claim and carries the prospect of being a burden on the 24-year-old’s shoulders, but certainly anyone with Rhinos connections will be hoping Watkins will be firing again when Brian McDermott’s men take the short visit to Huddersfield Giants for Friday night’s crunch final encounter in the Super League Super 8s. Carrying an injury from the devastating 50-0 Challenge Cup Final victory over Hull KR at Wembley, Watkins was missing from the Rhinos’ subsequent defeats at home to St Helens and in the South of France against the Catalan Dragons, Leeds’s heaviest reverse of the season. Watkins returned with an improved performance against Castleford Tigers at Headingley Carnegie last Thursday, but wasn’t at his predatory best as Leeds succumbed to a third consecutive defeat by 22-29. Now, zero hour is here, and Watkins is a player who can turn Leeds’s form around, not that he is alone in wanting to prove a point, with a host of Leeds players suffering a dip in form at just the wrong time. Across the M62 corridor, all the talk is of Leeds capitulating in the same fashion as they did 12 months ago following their 2014 Challenge Cup victory. Then it was the first Cup Final triumph for this generation of players, the Club’s first since 1999 and followed six shattering defeats in the famous showcase event, and many excused the knock-on effect in the Super League as mental exhaustion after such a stirring, landmark triumph. This time around, Leeds’ Wembley triumph couldn’t have been more routine and the questions surrounding their current dip in form are not so easy to answer. In 2014 Leeds were not exactly in sparkling form as they approached the Wembley meeting with Castleford. The Rhinos had lost two consecutive Super League games as the final approached, and this league form continued as they were defeated in the final two regular season games post-Wembley, and then lost at home to Catalan Dragons in the first play off game to abruptly end the season. Reigning Challenge Cup holders Leeds approached 2015’s Wembley occasion in supreme form and carrying an air of the untouchable; born from the kind of destructive rugby they have frequently hypnotized Super League with over the last decade.
It was something of an unspoken subject, but Leeds looked to be building up to the perfect send-off for departing legends Jamie Peacock and skipper Kevin Sinfield, and not forgetting another warrior, Kylie Leuluai, who is also playing out his last days as the Rhinos’ most decorated overseas player. The splendour with which Leeds were dispatching opponents in the run-up to Wembley, and on the big occasion itself, looked like it was being propelled by impassioned sentiment and it is important to note that this was only three games ago. Brian McDermott will be using last Thursday’s improved performance against Castleford as a reminder that some battle scars are yet to have healed from when his team were touching greatness. Such wounds are plentiful in the Rhinos camp, however. Rob Burrow hasn’t been seen since Wembley, and along with Watkins, in-form Zak Hardaker also missed the St Helens defeat. Added to this are long term injuries to Liam Sutcliffe, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and the in-form Paul Aiton, and while the Rhinos have largely coped well without these players, it points to stretched resources that can’t be patched up repeatedly for optimum performance. For his part, McDermott has claimed this week that he is “not concerned” by the current run of form as he holds a total trust in his group of players. It is easy to assume that such nonchalance stems from the standards the Rhinos had reached prior to the end of August, but at the same time it is worrying that McDermott claims training has been exactly the same as pre-Wembley and yet he can’t pinpoint where it is going wrong in matches.
Full back Hardaker has cited defensive errors and missed tackles as the root of the Rhinos current travails, and certainly every time Castleford had space on the ball last Thursday they looked dangerous and created panic in a scattered defence. Such a repeat of this – and numerous handling errors - at the John Smith’s Stadium against in-form Huddersfield Giants on Friday will leave the Rhinos with an awful lot of work to do at the other end, and you suspect defensive sharpness and an aide-memoire on fundamental tackling and handling technique will be high on the training agenda this week.
The Rhinos could already be knocked off the top spot they have held for so long by the time they kick off on Friday night. Second-placed St Helens play Warrington Wolves at Langtree Park on Thursday evening, and with just one point separating the top four clubs, several permutations still exist, but certainly Leeds will be hoping to avoid finishing third or fourth in the Super 8s and facing a Semi-Final tie away from home. Only a win will do at Huddersfield and maybe losing the top spot to St Helens will be the epoch-defining slap in the face the Rhinos need?
Perhaps key to how the Rhinos’ season ends is the thigh injury sustained by Kevin Sinfield against Castleford. Sinfield looked a forlorn figure from the bench as the minutes ticked away towards another defeat, and he won’t have been alone in wondering if his glittering Rhinos career had ended right there in disagreeably vanquished fashion. But Leeds’s most successful ever captain claims he is “99% certain” to be fit for a Semi-Final tie, and will make a late decision on whether he can also face Huddersfield this weekend. With a maximum of three competitive games left of an 18-year career in a Rhinos shirt before he switches codes to Rugby Union, and the colours of sister club Yorkshire Carnegie next season, it is clear Sinfield will be anxious to maximise his remaining influence on the club. Whilst that shouldn’t sway judgements on his fitness, Sinfield is just the character to put his body on the line, and you sense his presence on the field could be the spark to lift Leeds and secure the League Leaders’ Shield and the psychological boost of home advantage in the Semi-Finals.
Eleven years separate Watkins and Sinfield, but their impact is intrinsically-linked in a Rhinos legacy built on leadership, organisation and attacking flair. With potential match-winners throughout the team, the Rhinos are not short of inspiration. But now is the time to emerge from the dark, to fend off the criticism from their eager detractors and to build conquering narrative in one story and write the optimal ending to another.