Gary Hetherington says Leeds’ squad is the best ever. Peter Smith takes an in-depth look at the men representing Rhinos this term.
ACCORDING TO club chief executive Gary Hetherington, Leeds Rhinos are going into the 2014 season with their “best squad to date”.
Hetherington’s other major statement – that Rhinos’ current backline is the finest in the club’s history – may well prove to be the case, but his wider comment is very much open to debate.
Clearly, Hetherington is in charge of hiring and firing, also has a vested interest in getting fans through the turnstiles and is not going to come out and state the squad is weaker than it has been in the past, therefore some of what he says has to be taken with a pinch of salt and regarded as pre-season hype.
Equally though, the chief has an outstanding track record of success at Leeds and of making good on his pledges and he deserves listening to. Generally when he has said Leeds will achieve something, they have done it.
Time will tell whether Hetherington is correct, or if the fans who wanted to see more signings brought in since the end of last season were the ones with their fingers on the pulse.
The fact is, Rhinos’ squad is very similar to the one which finished a creditable third in Super League last term, but failed to reach either major domestic final for the first time since 2006.
They weren’t good enough last year, so have they really closed the gap over the last four months?
Paul McShane, the talented local hooker, has departed to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, swapping clubs with Papua New Guinea international Paul Aiton.
Both sides have got a good deal. McShane is a play-maker who offers something a little different out of the acting-half role, but he clearly wasn’t what Leeds coach Brian McDermott wanted.
Rhinos have ample pivots and Aiton’s role will most likely be ensuring they get plenty of ball and tightening defence in the middle of the field.
Aiton made 949 tackles for Wildcats last year and more than 2,000 metres with ball in hand. Once he settles in and provided he gets plenty of game time, he will prove to be a good acquisition.
Ex-Hunslet Hawks prop Andy Yates is a project and time will tell whether he adds to Rhinos’ squad, but apparently he was looking very impressive in training before suffering a long-term Achilles injury last November.
There is no doubting the ability of Leeds’ other recruit, England winger Tom Briscoe. A terrific finisher and very strong returning the ball from his own end of the field, he would be an asset to any side.
Leeds were already particularly strong in the outside-backs, but were stung when illness ruled Ben Jones-Bishop out before the 2013 campaign and Briscoe’s arrival means they have more depth.
It also provides a poser for McDermott, with six high-quality players battling for five spots. Against London Broncos in Ryan Bailey’s testimonial game, McDermott started with Briscoe on the wing and Jones-Bishop as a substitute.
Jones-Bishop – who scored a second half hat-trick – initially replaced Briscoe on the right-wing, but then moved to his preferred position of full-back, with Hardaker taking over from Kevin Sinfield at stand-off.
There are options. Sinfield is not likely to be rested during games very often, but he could move to loose-forward if Hardaker develops at No 6.
There are other questions: How will Stevie Ward fit back into the side when he returns from a 10-month injury lay-off, what role will Yorkshire Evening Post Shooting Star Liam Sutcliffe – who can play stand-off or back-row – be allocated, will Rob Burrow start at hooker or half-back?
It will be interesting to see how all that pans out and the uncertainties make for a fascinating season. Ward’s return – which is not far off now – will be like acquiring a new player and he showed two years ago how good he can be when fully fit.
Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow both have competition for their spot for the first time in a decade and that could spur them on, particularly the former, who had his injury woes in 2013, but will be better for a full off-season.
The quality in Leeds’ backline is unquestionable and they are capable of scoring a spectacular number of tries, if they get enough ball.
The question mark hanging over Leeds concerns their pack, with most of Leeds’ frontline forwards now being the wrong side of 30.
Kylie Leuluai will turn 36 next month and his fellow prop Jamie Peacock reached that milestone in December.
Peacock is a phenomenon and – remarkably – had one of the finest seasons of his career last term.
He has announced he will hang up his boots at the end of 2015 and Rhinos will hope he can maintain his high standards until then.
Obviously injuries take more of a toll as players get older, but nobody would be foolish enough to write Peacock off and with him leading the pack, anything is possible.
However, Jamie Jones-Buchanan (32), Kevin Sinfield (33) Ryan Bailey (30) and Ian Kirke (33) are all at or reaching the veteran stage.
Two of those have already been ruled out of Sunday’s season opener at Hull KR and the threat of injuries – which disrupted Rhinos so badly last year – must be a major concern. Rhinos have loaned five players to rival clubs on season-long deals, though they could be recalled in case of emergencies.
Two of those are in Leeds’ full-time squad, which is subsequently reduced to 23 players. Elliot Minchella is possibly the only member of a very young under-19s group currently ready to make the step up, so half a dozen or so injuries – or three more than they have already – would leave Rhinos stretched.
That said, Mitch Achurch will be better for a full year in English conditions under his belt, Chris Clarkson has impressed in pre-season, Brad Singleton has massive potential and Carl Ablett and Brett Delaney are proven performers – and all those are under 30.
Rhinos weren’t good enough to reach either final last year and many of their main rivals have strengthened, but Leeds will be there or thereabouts come the end of season shake-up and if they can avoid injuries, they will be strong contenders to get back on the trophy trail.
It may be the Challenge Cup which proves the most tempting target this year. Much depends on the draw, but the Challenge Cup is the one piece of silverware to have evaded the current squad and there is a fierce desire in the camp to put that right.