AS FAR as bittersweet seasons go, 2014 must have been one of the most peculiar and bizarre in the recent history of Leeds Rhinos.
Of course, there was the raw, unparalleled emotion of lifting their first Challenge Cup in 15 years, after that euphoric win against Castleford Tigers at Wembley.
Some saw that as the crushing of Castleford’s fairytale story. But in truth, there was just as big a fairytale coming true for those in blue and amber that day after so many years of hurt.
However, that Wembley win was the last time Leeds would experience the taste of success in 2015, as their season would end uncharacteristically, with a defeat to the Catalans in the first weekend of the play-offs. It was the Rhinos’ first defeat at that stage since 2006.
The following season Leeds bounced back to finish second in Super League, before going on to thump St Helens in the Grand Final, winning 33-6. Leeds forward Jamie Peacock played in that 2007 victory, and is targeting a repeat in 2015, while admitting there is huge motivation to improve on such a disappointing finish in 2014.
“Every time you don’t win a Grand Final, there’s motivation heading into the next season,” Peacock told League Express.
“You can see from everyone in training that we’ve all lifted a little to go a step further in 2015. When it comes to the play-offs this year, we’ll be a far better team than we were in 2014, and that’s because we’ve worked harder than we ever have before.
“When it gets difficult in pre-season, which it can do on occasions, the players are pushing themselves further than they have done before. We’re ahead of where we were last year; the Grand Final can sometimes blunt your preparations for the following year, in truth. Having finished early, we’ve been able to come back refreshed and charged up, motivated by a disappointing end to the season.”
Peacock openly admits that the Challenge Cup run took its toll emotionally on the Rhinos, after so many close brushes with Wembley glory in recent years. However, he insists that had Leeds managed to navigate past the Dragons in the first round of the play-offs – they led late on until Sam Williams’ last-gasp score – it could have been a very different story in the hunt for Old Trafford success.
He said: “We were the best team in the competition in the opening ten or twelve rounds. After that, I think the amount we invested emotionally in the Challenge Cup caused us to taper off a little towards the end of the season.
“I don’t think our performances were bad, and I think if we’d got past the Catalans we could have had a real run at the play-offs.
“We’d have played a couple of teams that weren’t in form at the time, and things would have been a lot different. I won’t lie though, our league form just wasn’t good enough.”
Peacock has backed the club’s talented crop of youngsters to make their mark in 2015, and to step into the void left by a number of departed senior players.
The likes of Ryan Bailey and Ian Kirke have left the club in the off-season, with Adam Cuthbertson the only new signing at Headingley for the new campaign.
Despite that though, Peacock believes the likes of Stevie Ward and Brad Singleton have the talent to make their mark on Super League in 2015.
“I think the younger lads have stepped up and trained brilliantly this year, and that will lead to them at a higher level on the pitch in 2015,” he told League Express.
“We’re going to need that; the beginning of last year was so good because lads like Zak Hardaker and Kallum Watkins became real senior players for us. We need that transition to happen again, and see some younger lads make their mark.”
Peacock has also challenged the youngsters to not just make sporadic appearances, but to be regulars throughout the campaign.
“Those lads have got to realise that their goals for the season shouldn’t be to be a bit-part player, playing only ten games or so. Realistically their goals should be to play 30 games, and force their way into being a main player in our team in 2015.
“You can see they’re training the house down; I look at lads like Stevie Ward, Liam Sutcliffe and Brad Singleton – as well as youngsters like Robbie Ward, Josh Walters and Robbie Mulhern – all these younger guys are going to be trying to grab an opportunity, and someone always fills the void.
“Someone will always step up, and hopefully some of these lads will step in and make a mark for the Rhinos.”
And in terms of improving on last year’s disappointment in the league, how does Peacock rate his chances of his final game as a professional being at Old Trafford in the Grand Final?
“There’s a long way to go yet, and there are plenty of twists and turns – I know that more than anyone!
“It’s a realistic aim; we’ve got the coaching staff and the squad to do it, so it’s just about getting to that business end of the season. If we can do that with as few injuries as possible, and if we go above and beyond what other clubs are doing, then we’ve got a chance.
“The league is tighter than ever, but if we’re as good as we possibly can be then we’ll give ourselves a fantastic shot at doing it.”