THERE IS more competition for places in Leeds Rhinos’ squad now than there was ahead of last year’s treble-winning campaign, chief executive Gary Hetherington claims.
Rhinos open the First Utility Super League season at home to Warrington Wolves in 13 days’ time and Hetherington reckons boss Brian McDermott has some big decisions to make.
Kevin Sinfield, Paul Aiton, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai have moved on since the end of last season, with Keith Galloway, Beau Falloon, Brett Ferres, Anthony Mullally and Jordan Baldwinson being brought in, and Ashton Golding, Ash Handley and Jordan Lilley receiving top-25 squad numbers.
Hetherington said that means – despite the loss of players with a total of 19 Grand Final wins for Leeds between them – the group is deeper now.
Rhinos face visitors Bradford Bulls on Sunday in Carl Ablett’s testimonial match and Hetherington said: “The full team will be playing.
“It is fair to say I have never known such competition for places at this stage of the season.
“In previous seasons the coach and fans have pretty much known what the starting team will be, but Brian and the coaching staff have certainly got some challenges there.
“We have got a lot of players competing for places and Sunday’s game will be an ideal opportunity for quite a number of players to stake a claim.”
Hetherington is urging fans to turn out to support Ablett, who played in Rhinos’ six Grand Final wins from 2007-201 and the 2014 and 2015 Challenge Cup victories.
“He has been a real stalwart and a great example to all younger players,” the chief executive said.
“He has got a quiet determination. He is not a demonstrative person. He just gets on with the job in quite an unassuming way. As an academy player, people didn’t pick him out and say he had a great future – the feeling at the time was he was athletic and had a chance.
“He had a spell at London, he came back and got into a good side and he has been an outstanding servant and at the heart of all our success ever since. He has developed into an international-standard player – he has played representative rugby for England – and has earned the respect of all the players and coaching staff.
“He coaches the under-16s with Rob Burrow and he is a great role model for all the young players.
“Carl is what a testimonial is all about and I hope the fans will come and support him on Sunday, when there is a very interesting game in prospect.”
Sunday’s game will be the first since Rhinos returned from a week-long training camp in Jacksonville, Florida.
Hetherington said: “It was a good-quality week and very beneficial. To have the players and coaching staff together in such a good environment was invaluable.
“It is not just a case of going somewhere to train, the facilities are outstanding and the players were able to train in much better weather conditions.
“We have quite a number of new players – both young players and more experienced ones – and it was good for them to spend time with the group, so there were quite a lot of benefits.”