Three in and one out at Leeds Rhinos suits Grand Final-winning coach Brian McDermott just fine. Peter Smith reports.
CHANGES HAVE been kept to a minimum, but Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott is happy with the troops under his command this year.
“If you look at the combinations we have in the halves, the combination we have available at dummy-half and the availability of our outside-backs, I think it’s the most balanced squad since I’ve been coach,” is a quick assessment of how he regards Leeds’ playing roster.
Looking in more depth at Rhinos’ prospects, McDermott added: “Competition for places is a bit of a cliche, but I will be picking the best team I think is going to do the job.
“It is not about anybody’s opinion of how they want the game to be played, it’s about what have we got to do to finish as high up that ladder as we can and get back to Old Trafford.
“Each week we’ve got to pick our best team and that’s what I’m tasked with – to go pick the team I think’s going to win that particular game.”
That doesn’t – McDermott insists – mean flogging certain players to the limit. Something he has been accused of – and he laughs out loud when this is mentioned – is not being willing to rotate his squad, to keep players fresh.That’s an issue for Leeds, with six forwards aged over 30. McDermott responds: “I have said it for three years. I do get accused of never resting players and it gives me a wry smile, because since I’ve been coach I’ve never had an opportunity to rest anybody.
“The week before the Challenge Cup final in 2012 we went away to Catalan and I pretty much took my full-strength team, but there weren’t many people I could have rested.
“We had two objectives that year: win the Challenge Cup and win the Grand Final. We could not afford to drop many points.
“Realistically I have never been faced with a situation where I can say to a Kev (Sinfield) or a Magsy (Danny McGuire) or a Rob (Burrow) or JP (Jamie Peacock) ‘go stand down for a couple of weeks, freshen up and we’ll put these other fellas in and you can come back nice and fresh’.
“I would like to rest and rotate and that is something I plan to do, but we will see if we are allowed to do that mid-season.”
While some of Rhinos’ rivals have overhauled their squads since the end of last season, McDermott will have similar options this year to last.
Every member of the team which lost to Wigan Warriors in last September’s qualifying semi-final is still at the club and only Hull’s England winger Tom Briscoe and hooker Paul Aiton – from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – have been added, along with Hunslet Hawks prop Andy Yates.
Asked how they will enhance the side, McDermott insisted: “I don’t need to say much about them.
“Everybody knows about Tom, he’s an international winger – a very good winger. We are very proud and honoured that he’s come and signed with us.
“I am sure he will have a huge impact on what we do this year, but, I hasten to add, so will Ryan Hall and Ben Jones-Bishop and Kallum Watkins and Joel Moon.
“This is the key, the addition of Tom Briscoe doesn’t just affect the wingers. It also affects the role of the full-back, it will have a bearing on where Zak (Hardaker) plays, how Zak plays and in what position.
“Zak is equally good in the centres as he is at full-back. There is a fair amount of rotation there – Kallum Watkins can play full-back and wing and is very potent at both.
“What it does is it provides us with a lot of cover and there’s a lot of scope for chopping and changing should we see fit and obviously it covers us for injuries as well.
“The addition of another international winger gives us a lot of room for movement. As for the addition of Tom Briscoe individually, he is a very strong ball carrier and a threat physically to the opposition and that’s one of the reasons we’ve signed him.”
Aiton – who played for Papua New Guinea in the 2013 World Cup – has effectively swapped places with last year’s Rhinos No 9 Paul McShane, who is now at Wakefield.
McDermott said: “He is a seasoned player, very experienced. He has been under some good coaches, he knows the game and he’s already added to what we are about.
“When we have rolled him in at Nine this year in pre-season you can see little glimpses there of what might be for us this year.
“Again, he provides us with cover for injuries and for rotation as well.
“We all know Rob Burrow is an outstanding, world class player whether he plays at Nine or Seven and is equally as good at both.
“Paul Aiton allows us to to take that into consideration.”
Rhinos will be going for glory on all fronts this year, but the reintroduction of relegation – with the bottom two sides dropping out – will add a new element to the competition.
Asked what bearing he thinks it will have on First Utility Super League, McDermott said: “You better go ask the other teams, because every game we play is a contest. We don’t go to London or Salford and have an easy ride. That hasn’t been the case since I’ve been coach or since Leeds entered into a period of success.
“Over the whole competition I think some of the teams in the relegation battle will up the ante a bit.
“Nobody will want to get relegated, but rather than having one team fighting for its life you are going to have four or five trying to avoid two spots.
“A higher-end team walking over a lower-end team mid-season, I don’t think that’ll happen as much. I think there will be more contests and more competition in the mid-season period.”
Leeds are no longer defending champions and McDermott added: “Practically, what that affects is our build-up to the year.
“We don’t have the World Club Challenge to play in and we are disappointed about that, but we are focused on round one and really keen to get the season going, without having to talk about peaking at the start. Having to do that does have a bearing. We will be keen and ready for round one and we’re just quietly going about our business.”
Rhinos begin away to Hull KR on Sunday, a ground where they have won on five of their eight previous Super League visits.