WINNING THE Tetley’s Challenge Cup made 2014 a “successful” season for Leeds Rhinos, chief executive Gary Hetherington says.
Hetherington admitted last weekend’s early exit from the First Utility Super League play-offs was a “desperate disappointment”.
But he backed Rhinos’ coaching staff for doing an “admirable” job and insisted the club are going into the off-season in good shape.
Giving his assessment of the campaign which ended four days ago, Hetherington said: “It was overall an exhilarating season with some exceptional highs – most notably Wembley – and desperate disappointment, none more so that last Saturday night.
“The season started exceptionally well and for the first half of the season I thought we were the best team in the competition.
“We were very strong defensively and a potent attacking force as well. I have no doubt if we had lost to St Helens in the fifth round of the Challenge Cup we would have gone on to win the league leaders’ shield.
“But we didn’t, we won the Cup – which brought untold joy, but also took its toll both emotionally and physically.
“In the last third of the season, which included the semi-final and final, we saw quite a number of disappointing losses in games we could have won and we finished the season with a home defeat against a very good Catalan side.
“Post-Wembley we were extremely well prepared and motivated to go on and do the double and the team were left devastated with the outcome.
Turn to page 44
“It has left a very angry bunch of players, who know they could have gone on to win at Old Trafford.
“Despite three disappointing league defeats after Wembley we were more than ready for the play-offs, but it was not to be.
“Sometimes in sport what’s meant to be is not what you want it to be.”
Hetherington pointed out that Rhinos had Super League’s best defensive record and added: “There are only three trophies to be won and any team that wins one can look upon that season as a successful one.
“That applies to all clubs, including Leeds Rhinos. The Challenge Cup was comfortably the highlight, although the season ended cruelly with parallels to 2006, when we were beaten at the same stage of the play-offs by a late Lee Briers drop goal.
“We went on to turn disappointment into triumph by winning the next three Grand Finals, so hopefully there’s an omen there.”
Reflecting on the team’s performance, Hetherington said : “The coaching and backroom staff did an admirable job.
“Our squad was one of the best-conditioned in Super League and fitter than most. Tactically, the best people to say are opposing coaches and what they all agree is we became a very difficult team to beat and defend against.
“The squad has got an outstanding work ethic, spirit and camaraderie and it is full of good men, with outstanding qualities.
“Much has been made about the number of veteran players, but the average of our one to 25 is 27 and the average age of the top-30 takes it down to 25.”
Hetherington singled out Jamie Peacock, Zak Hardaker and Liam Sutcliffe as outstanding individuals, tipped recruits Paul Aiton and Tom Briscoe to “produce even more next season” and said the number of academy players given first team experience will benefit the team in the long-term, along with the return of players on loan from other top-flight clubs.
The chief declined to discuss plans for next year “at this stage”, but said: “We are a very strong club and we will go into next season continuing the squad transition and with a confidence and optimism that a further improvement will put us in a great position to win more silverware.”