Leeds Rhinos spreading the net to attract county-wide new audience

The early chapters in the story of Leeds Rhinos Netball have certainly been eventful, unique even, in the world of sport.

By Nick Westby
Saturday, 15th January 2022, 6:00 am

First of all they were forced to play their entire maiden season behind closed doors in neutral venues due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The one thing any team needs to do at the outset of their journey is build a fanbase and a relationship with those spectators. But it was a sporting birthright denied the Rhinos as they went through that first season unable to gauge the interest in what they were achieving by the most fundamental of metrics – bums on seats.

They achieved a lot under their motivational head coach Dan Ryan, pinching a top-four play-off spot in Vitality Superleague with a late-season surge.

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Tracey Robinson: New Leeds Rhinos Netball head coach. Pictures: Bruce Rollinson

But as is the narrative with this team, upheaval was not far away, with Ryan departing his role in the close season to return home to Australia for family reasons.

Rhinos, for a time, were heading towards their second campaign homeless and rudderless.

But with that season now just three weeks away, Leeds Rhinos have a new direction, a new leader, and a unique opportunity to not only grow that fanbase in their home city, but in two other parts across the region as well.

For, from February to June 2022, Rhinos will play their home fixtures in British netball’s elite tier in three cities; Leeds, Sheffield and Hull, giving the club multiple opportunities to develop a fanbase. From zero to 300 per cent is quite the return on any spreadsheet.

Getting her message across: Tracey Robinson with the Leeds Rhinos Netball players.

Whether they can build on what Ryan achieved last season is down to the latest part of the equation, their new head coach, Tracey Robinson, who joins after three years in a similar role with the Malaysian national team and after serving as an assistant on three different teams in the Suncorp Super Netball in Australia.

“Mike Stevenson is a Yorkshire lad, and a good friend of mine,” begins Robinson, when retelling the story of how she ended up in Leeds,

“When the approach came he was the first person I called to ask ‘what do you know about Leeds Rhinos?’

“He said: ‘they’re the best run club in England’, so straight away I thought that’s an organisation I want to be part of.

“He talked about the community programmes the rugby league team have and that’s what I like to hear, because the sport of netball finds athletes from everywhere and what Rhinos have done in embracing netball and embracing communities through their foundations has been absolutely gobsmacking for me.

“That was one of the main factors for me in coming here.”

Robinson’s role, like that of Rhinos Netball itself, is two-fold: establishment of a Superleague force on the court and a performance pathway off it.

Taking netball to the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, the Allam Sports Centre in Hull and First Direct Arena in Leeds this season can only increase the chances of attracting new fans and building a pathway.

“We’re able to touch fans throughout the whole region, fans from across the area have a greater chance now of seeing these athletes that they have seen on television,” continues Robinson, whose first home game in charge is in Sheffield on Monday, February 14.

“Not a lot of sports do that, usually fans have to travel quite a distance to see their teams play, but this is a huge plus for netball. We can get out into those communities, we can get young fans along, male and female, because netball is a sport for everybody.

“They don’t have to travel to Leeds to come and watch us play, we’re travelling out to them. It’s a massive plus for us.

“What Leeds have done with the Rhinos Foundation in reaching out to the community in rugby is something we want to do with netball by getting athletes from wherever we can throughout the region.

“In the past, they’ve lost a lot of players to Manchester Thunder because of the strength of their programme, but I want players to want to play for Leeds Rhinos.

“So we’ve got to develop a culture where people want to come to us. It’s incumbent on us that we’re improving on that year by year but also connecting with the Rhinos club.

“Being involved as the whole club, and also the community, is what we want to do with our culture, we want youth to be a bullwark against everything else.

“You come to Leeds Rhinos you’re part of this community, you’re part of this club.

“Underpinning our first team is an academy, an Under-17s team and an Under-19s team; we want to try and get players involved from across the county.

“Then we don’t have to be looking for players overseas, we’ve actually developing them in our own back yard.

“That’s the grand plan moving forward. That’s why the pathway needs to be really good because players coming through cements the connection with the community.”

Robinson only arrived in the country late last week, and can count on the fingers of one hand how many training sessions she has had with a group of girls – largely unchanged from last season – that embraced the professional environment they were stepping up to.

“I’m happy with where they’re at, but I’ve put a few different techniques in and I think they’re happy with a different style of coaching and the tactical changes, and have been very responsive,” she says.

“They’re a young group, which was one of the things that convinced me to come here because I really like developing players. Last year they showed everybody how good they are. Now we’re the hunted, last year we were hunting and people didn’t know what to expect.

“So we can’t do the same thing, it has to be a few changes and making sure we’re working on the individual skill development.”

A bit like Ryan before her, Robinson is not one for setting grand targets – maybe it is the Australian way.

“It’s about the players setting targets,” says the former New South Wales and Queensland assistant coach.

“It’s easy for coaches to come in and say yes we’re going to win that, but at the end of the day the players have to buy in.

“The players will be the ones who tell you the target they have. Of course we want to build on last year, of course we want to make the semi-finals as the first step but there’s an awful lot of hard work between now and then. I’ve only been here a week and hopefully we can make those small improvements and build on what we’ve achieved.

“The successful teams I’ve been with are player driven. Players at this level are smart, they know what they need to do, it’s a matter of making sure they live up to those values and attitudes required for high-performance athletes. That’s the environment I’d like to provide.”

Leeds Rhinos have provided it for her, and with three new communities to inspire, 2022 is an exciting time for Rhinos Netball.