Peter Smith: Kallum Watkins’ impending departure from Leeds Rhinos makes sense for both parties
There’s an old saying “may you live in interesting times”. Intended to sound like a blessing, it is actually a curse – and for Leeds Rhinos, these really are interesting times.
A month after their head coach was sacked, six months into a three-year contract, Rhinos have confirmed captain Kallum Watkins won’t be at the club next season. The England centre was contracted for two more full years, in a deal announced only 14 months ago, but a release has been “mutually” agreed.
The news adds to the impression Rhinos are a club in turmoil, but – disappointing as it undoubtedly is – Watkins’ impending departure makes sense for both parties.
Watkins’ salary was due to rise over the next couple of seasons and Rhinos were unwilling to fund that. It is understood the 28-year-old was offered a longer deal, beyond the end of 2021, but on reduced terms.
His current contract was announced in April, 2018 and was probably agreed some time before that.
At the end of 2017 Watkins was in outstanding form, but since then he has undergone a knee reconstruction, which kept him sidelined from May last year until the start of this season and has not yet got back to his best.
Rhinos are in the process of rebuilding their squad and, having to operate under a strict salary cap, their priorities for spending the big money lie elsewhere, specifically in the halves.
Salford Red Devils’ Jackson Hastings, James Maloney of Penrith Panthers and Castleford Tigers’ former Man of Steel Luke Gale are all possible targets.
Leeds already have a ready-made replacement centre in Harry Newman, a 19-year-old England academy prospect who has played in their last seven games and is tipped for a very bright future.
Watkins’ release will clear the way for Newman to sign an extended contract, which may not have happened if both Watkins and Leeds’ other centre Konrad Hurrell were on long-term deals.
Nobody yet knows if or when Watkins will regain his pre-anterior cruciate ligament injury form and that was clearly a factor in Rhinos’ thinking.
He may well do and still has time to go on and win more honours, but the club have looked at the bigger picture.
Equally, Watkins can’t be blamed for standing his ground and demanding the money previously agreed.
He is not yet at the twilight stage of his playing days, but that is around the corner and he has a family – and life after rugby league – to consider.
It is a sad end to what has been an outstanding Leeds career.
Since making his debut in 2008, as a 17-year-old, Watkins has won three Grand Finals and the Challenge Cup twice.
He has opportunities to leave in the past, but opted to stay at Leeds. He won’t be short of offers now. Clearly something has been affecting him this term.
And now it is out in the open he can concentrate on getting back to peak form – and securing a deal elsewhere – while Rhinos focus on bringing in the play-maker they so desperately need.