HE never set out to be a custodian but Leeds Rhinos’ Liam Sutcliffe is growing increasingly fond of the full-back role.
The rangy stand-off has found himself playing there quite often this term for various reasons, even though it was obviously supposed to be the campaign he stepped into Kevin Sinfield’s boots in the crucial No 6 position.
Furthermore, with team-mate Zak Hardaker, the England international, having joined Penrith Panthers until the end of the season at least, Sutcliffe could be set for an extended stay at full-back.
He is set to play in the No 1 position when Widnes Vikings arrive at Headingley tomorrow and told the YEP: “I am enjoying it and definitely feel like I’m getting used to it now.
“The more I play it, the more I’m learning and more I’m getting used to the different type of roles a full-back requires.
“Obviously it was great having Zak here, even when I was playing full-back, to give me tips.
“If I do play there for the rest of the year, or for however long, I’m really relishing it and I just want to keep improving at it and see how it goes.”
The 21-year-old thrived there in Leeds’ last outing, the 32-6 win at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats more than a fortnight ago, when he came into the line to bring an extra attacking threat for the defending champions who, of course, remain bottom of Super League.
It has become more common in recent years for sides to utilise their full-back like an auxiliary stand-off so it, understandably, suits Sutcliffe.
Would it be a natural progression further down his career regardless?
“I’m a half-back/loose-forward by trade but when I was young I played a bit of full-back and centre,” explained the goal-kicker.
“But, yes, teams do have ball-handling full-backs nowadays and with that side of the game I feel pretty confident going around the back and linking up with the centres or whoever.
“It’s just defensively that’s been different; I’m used to getting back 10 metres and making tackles so it’s a bit different to be laterally running. But the more I do it in training, the more I’m feeling the benefits.”
One of the best exponents of that modern version in Super League is Widnes’ Rhys Hanbury, the 30-year-old Australian who has proved so dynamic for Denis Betts’s side in recent seasons.
“Obviously, he is one of their strike players and some of the stuff he does is pretty freakish especially his kick-returns,” added Sutcliffe.
“He seems to be able to get through the smallest of gaps and get them on the front foot.
“He’s someone we’ll be watching this week in what is a massive game for us.”
That Wakefield win was the first time Leeds have strung together consecutive victories all season but they know, if they make it three, it could heap pressure on Widnes.
A win would narrow the gap to them in eighth to just four points with three games to go as Leeds look to secure the unlikeliest of finishes to a woeful year and somehow avoid the Qualifiers.
Widnes vanquished them 56-12 in the second game of the season in February, perhaps a sign of the problems to come for Brian McDermott’s struggling champions. But Leeds-born Sutcliffe insisted: “To be honest, we’ve not even spoken about that.
“It was the start of the year, we were not in our best form and it was a long time ago now.
“We’ve just concentrated on the last few games we’ve played and the positives we’ve had that we can take into Widnes.
“We know it’d be huge to get another win. After what we’ve been through, two victories on the bounce was very good for us heading into the week’s break and we’re looking to add to it now.
“Everyone’s pretty fresh after a little time off and we came in raring to go this week. I can’t wait to get back out there.”
Sutcliffe conceded Leeds must attempt to control the influence of Kevin Brown, the Widnes stand-off who is back in the England reckoning after a six-year absence.
“I think the way he’s been at Widnes these last few years he’s really come on from his Huddersfield days,” he said. “The amount of tries he scores or sets up is impressive and what he does for Widnes is massive.
“A lot goes through Kev Brown and he’s one of the big reasons they’ve had a lot of success.”
Sutcliffe could yet revert to the halves tomorrow as teenage full-back Ashton Golding has been named in the Leeds 19-man squad following a recent injury.
Either way, he is looking forward to getting back into action after a rare blank weekend.
The player is also relishing the chance to work with James Segeyaro, the Papua New Guinea hooker who has joined from Penrith Panthers as part of the Hardaker deal.
“I’m really excited by him coming in,” said Sutcliffe, with the Leeds recruit set to debut against Hull FC on Friday – and Hardaker hoping to feature himself against Wests Tigers today.
“I’ve seen a few highlights of what he can do in the NRL and he looks a really exciting player.
“He’s not afraid to put a bit of a hit on and is a runner as well.
“When he gets in the team it’ll be good too see how he fits in. Zak’s spoke to a few of the boys this week, too, now he’s down there and hopefully he can really make a go of it and do a good job for Penrith.”