Leeds Rhinos with nothing to lose as Vitality Superleague play-offs offer chance of causing major upset
If ‘everything to gain’ would be an apposite mantra to describe Leeds Rhinos’ first season in Vitality Superleague, ‘nothing to lose’ would be the slogan for their maiden play-off campaign this weekend.
The rookie squad that was built in a global pandemic arrives at the Copper Box Arena in London’s Olympic Park as one of the four best teams in British netball’s elite tier.
A steady build through the season when they absorbed as much learning as possible has brought them to this point, one in which their season’s goal has been achieved.
It means that against the Loughborough Lightning today, the top seeds who won 17 of their 20 games compared to the Rhinos’ 12 wins, they are going in with no expectation on their shoulders.
Weighing up gains and losses is all part of the day job for Fi Toner, who puts in 40-hour weeks with accountancy firm Deloitte around training sessions with the Rhinos five mornings a week.
“At times I’ve had to step out of training to do board meetings or take calls. Because of the client requirements, I might be working by the side of the court,” says the 30-year-old.
“I train with the team five mornings a week and then it’s off to work.
“I actually live in the ‘netball house’ with three other players so am working from the home office there.”
Toner is the Rhinos’ co-captain along with England Roses’ most-capped player Jade Clarke.
Although this is her first Superleague play-off finals weekend, she is a veteran of two World Cups and two Commonwealth Games’ with Northern Ireland.
“They were great experiences,” she says. “My first World Cup was 2011 in Singapore so that was my first experience of global competitions, and then Glasgow in 2014 the first experience of a multi-sport event.
“The Commonwealths was something that as Northern Ireland we never thought we’d get to. So to get to two and hopefully a third, that’s something you never forget.”
Helping steer Rhinos to a Superleague title would be equally unforgettable.
Not that it will be easy, given the two teams contesting the other semi-final, Manchester Thunder and Team Bath also won 17 games in the regular season.
Hence why head coach Dan Ryan told the YEP yesterday that his team has “nothing to lose”.
“It’s a new experience for most of us,” adds Toner, who injured her Achilles in the second game of the season but returned midway through the campaign to propel them up the table from seventh to fourth. “Jade, Brie Grierson and Vicki Oyesola have got experience of finals weekend, but it’s a new experience together as group.
“We go in there knowing we’ve nothing to lose, the other three teams have considerable pressure on them to perform and succeed, but we’re confident of what we can do.”
Preparation has been disrupted by their inactivity. Today’s game (2pm) will be their first since Sunday, May 31, after a player returned a positive Covid test the following week, forcing the Rhinos to have to isolate.
They only returned to training on Sunday night and managed just three more sessions on the court, all of them shorter than normal due to return-to-play protocols.
“By the end of today we were pretty happy with where we’ve gone to over the course of the week, albeit losing 10 days of that,” continues Toner.
“We’re all pretty happy and comfortable going into the weekend. It’s been a good year, different with Covid and all that, but it’s a really strong group.”
Toner played basketball in her youth and was good enough to earn a scholarship to play at a preparatory school in the United States, and spend another year playing college basketball in Illinois.
But she chose netball five years ago and has not looked back with her native Northern Ireland, and now with the Rhinos.
For Ryan, the architect of this unlikely push for the play-offs, he added: “When we look back on the season, to have been a top-four team in our first year with all of the struggles and challenges, all of the injuries, the uncertainty, recruiting a team in a global pandemic; there’s a lot to be proud of for everyone involved at the club and we’ve put ourselves in a great position for sustainable success in the future.”