A work in progress, but optimism is growing at Leeds Rhinos – Peter Smith

ENTERING THE second half of the campaign, Leeds Rhinos’ season could yet go either of two ways.

By Peter Smith
Thursday, 26th May 2022, 5:46 am

It will not take much to drag Leeds right back into the relegation dogfight; a couple of defeats, along with wins for the teams below them – Wakefield Trinity and Toulouse Olympique – would leave Rhinos in serious danger.

However, while they are five points above the drop zone, Leeds are also only three adrift of sixth place.

With 28 points still up for grabs, a push into the play-offs – while it might seem unlikely – is achievable. It has been a gloomy camp for most of this year, but there is now a growing feeling of optimism among Rhinos’ players and staff.

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New head coach Rohan Smith's influence is beginning to be felt at Leeds Rhinos. Picture: John Clifton/SWpix.com.

Though nobody has, yet, detailed exactly what the problems were over the first quarter of the campaign, there is much talk at the moment of togetherness and players “buying into” what coach Rohan Smith is putting in place, so read into that what you will.

After seven defeats from their opening eight games. Rhinos have won three and drawn one of their past six. There were clear signs of improvement under interim-boss Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who took over when Richard Agar resigned in March.

After two heavy defeats, he picked up a draw, loss by two points and successive wins, which gave Smith something to build on when he arrived.

Smith’s first game, a 23-8 setback at Salford Red Devils, was a huge disappointment, but it was encouraging to see some of the issues which proved costly that afternoon addressed five days later, in the 24-6 home win over Wakefield.

James Bentley touches down for his second try against St Helens. His and Leeds Rhinos' disciplinary record this season has been a problem area. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Trinity were very poor and there was no reason to get carried away with Leeds’ performance, but the team selection proved Smith isn’t afraid to switch things around.

There are plenty of questions to be answered over the next 14 games and Smith will have his work cut out. Attack and discipline are the two biggest performance issues.

It is obvious Smith is encouraging his players to play what they see. Rhinos remain Super League’s lowest scorers, but parts of the performance against Wakefield, in very tricky conditions, hinted at a more exciting style of play under the new coach.

But discipline, in terms of the number of suspensions they have picked up this year, is a problem which urgently needs fixing.

A decision over the future of Jarrod O'Connor and other Leeds Rhinos players has yet to be made. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

James Bentley had an outstanding game against Wakefield, but was shown his third card of the campaign and by the time his latest ban is completed, he will have missed as many games through suspension – eight – as he has played in.

That figure would be even worse if Leeds weren’t able to use tomorrow’s reserves’ game to wipe one off his current ban.

Rhinos have been hit by 14 suspensions this term, with four players – Bentley, Brad Dwyer, Zame Tetevano and Matt Prior – banned more than once.

It seems Jack Broadbent is heading to Castleford and it will be a shame from Rhinos’ point of view if they lose a homegrown product who is a threat with ball in hand.

But Leeds aren’t badly off in the centres when everyone’s fit; as well as Liam Sutcliffe, Tom Briscoe and Zak Hardaker, Harry Newman is getting closer to returning from a hamstring injury, 17-year-old Max Simpson has shown he can do a job at the top level and another teenager, Levi Edwards, could also come into the equation.

Brad Dwyer is being linked with St Helens and it was significant he only got 10 minutes off the bench against Wakefield. If he leaves, it will make retaining young hooker Corey Johnson, who is out of contract this autumn and highly-rated by Rhinos, a priority.

Decisions also have to be made on or by Rhyse Martin, Briscoe, Blake Austin, Alex Mellor, Bodene Thompson, Jarrod O’Connor and Muizz Mustapha. Some of those will be moving on, so Smith will also need to look at who to bring in.

Because of the change of coach, Leeds are playing catch up in terms of recruitment and retention so the sooner that is all sorted, the better it will be for everybody concerned.