LEEDS RHINOS are on the verge of achieving something special, chief executive Gary Hetherington reckons.
Hetherington believes his controversial pre-season view that this is Rhinos’ best-ever squad has been justified by league form so far and last week’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup-final triumph.
But he insisted that is just the start as Leeds, who take on visitors St Helens tonight, chase the league leaders’ shield and Super League title, which would earn them another crack at being rated the best club in the world.
“I think this Leeds team is a very special one,” Hetherington said.
“I know at the start of the season I said to The Yorkshire Evening Post I believe this is our best-ever squad.
“Following those remarks I received about 20 letters from disgruntled fans, who were bitterly complaining that we’d only made one signing – that of Adam Cuthbertson – to add to the squad from the end of 2014, which as we all know ended very disappointingly.
“But I had no doubt this was the best squad we had ever assembled and it would be a difficult squad to replicate in future, because it was always going to be the last season for Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai.
“So far the squad have delivered an outstanding performance over the course of the season and they are now on the threshold of achieving what would be quite a remarkable historic treble success.
“That is something this club has never done before.”
The Challenge Cup is already in the bag following the record-breaking 50-0 trouncing of Hull KR six days ago.
Rhinos are four points clear at the top of the First Utility Super-8s table with four games to play and a home semi-final is all-but guaranteed.
Under the new structure, the Grand Finalists will be decided by one round of play-offs, with the league leaders playing host to the side finishing fourth in the Super-8s and second facing third.
Leeds have already secured a semi-final spot and are one win away from guaranteeing home advantage, but Hetherington insisted: “I don’t under-estimate the challenge ahead of us.
“We have a limited number of players in our squad, as every other team does and we have already lost three key players for the rest of the season in Liam Sutcliffe, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Paul Aiton.
“That is going to put a terrific strain on our current players – our senior players and the fringe players as well.
“But so far everybody has come up to the plate and we’ve had outstanding performances from such as Ash Handley, Ash Golding, Josh Walters and Robbie Ward.
“They have all stepped in whenever they’ve been required and done an admirable job.
“They are going to be needed throughout the rest of the season.”
Leeds will have one hand on their first league leaders’ shield since 2009 if they record a fourth win of the year over Saints, and Hetherington said that would be another pre-season goal achieved.
“We are very much focused on the league leaders’ trophy, that has always been a target right from the outset,” he stated.
“There are so many good reasons to be the league leaders at the end of the season – and then of course we also want to reach the Grand Final and we desperately want to win it.
“We want to achieve the treble – and we already have one eye on next season.
“We have already qualified for the World Club Series by winning the Challenge Cup.
“But we want to be contenders for the World Club Challenge and to do so we have to be the Grand Final winners.
“We want to get back our title as the best club team in the world.
“To achieve three of those titles would be unprecedented, so this is a great time to be a fan of Leeds Rhinos.”
Hetherington is keen for other Headingley-based clubs to share in Rhinos’ success.
“It is also a great time to be a sports fan at Headingley,” he added.
“We have got the Rhinos as Cup holders and challenging for the league leaders and the Super League title; we have got Yorkshire County Cricket Club on the threshold of achieving a rare double and we’ve got the start of the rugby union season, with Yorkshire Carnegie boasting a team full of confidence and optimism about winning promotion back to the Premiership. All that starts this weekend.
“There’s never been a better time to be a fan of the Rhinos, Yorkshire or Carnegie, or ideally all three.
“And for the city as a whole, Josh Warrington defends his titles on Saturday and Leeds United had a great win last week.
“Sport has never been as buoyant in the city as it is today and I think all the sports fans of Leeds have got so much to look forward to and be proud of.
“Sport is doing the city proud at present and we’re delighted to be doing our bit.”
Rhinos are now stepping up their search for a new hooker to replace the departing Paul Aiton.
Hetherington said the club have a list of potential targets, but no offers or approaches have been made.