A year on: big changes at Leeds Rhinos since coach Richard Agar stepped down
and live on Freeview channel 276
It has been a tumultuous 12 months since then. Agar’s final game was a 26-12 defeat at Salford Red Devils, three days before he resigned.
Of the 17 Leeds players on duty that day, only six - Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer, Zane Tetevano, James Bentley, Rhyse Martin and Cameron Smith - featured when Rhinos were beaten 14-8 at Castleford Tigers last Thursday.
Of the remaining 11, seven have left the club, two are injured and a couple more were not selected.
A total of 21 first team squad members have come or gone - and in a couple of cases, both - since Agar’s exit and Leeds’ backroom staff has also been overhauled.
When the previous coach left, Leeds were 10th in Betfred Super League, having won only one of their opening six matches.
Twelve months on, they have played one fewer game this season and sit two places and a couple of points better off on the table, with two wins from five Super League rounds.
In between, they pulled away from the relegation zone, secured an unlikely fifth place on the 2022 table and, even more unexpectedly, reached their first Grand Final since 2017.
Agar - who is now an assistant-coach with NRL side Auckland Warriors - was appointed in May 2019 and his reign amounted to 71 games, with 36 wins and 35 defeats - a success rate of 50.70.
Taking over from Dave Furner in May, 2019, Agar steadied the ship, fended off the possibility of relegation and won a trophy at Wembley in his second season.
However, speaking on the day he resigned, he admitted he was no longer “having the impact I would hope”.
Following his departure, Jamie Jones-Buchanan had a six-game spell as caretaker-coach, losing three, winning two and drawing one.
While a 33 per cent win rate wasn’t startling, he did provide a platform for the incoming coach to build on.
Present boss Rohan Smith’s first game in charge was on May 15, at Salford and his record in all competitions is played 24, won 15, lost nine - a success rate of 62.5 per cent.
Under Smith, Rhinos have beaten every current Super League team, other than promoted Leigh Leopards who they have yet to face in a competitive match. They also lost to Toulouse Olympique, who were relegated at the end of last season, in the sides’ only competitive meeting since Smith’s arrival.
Home form has improved markedly under Smith’s tenure, Leeds having lost only once - to Hull earlier this year - in eight games at Headingley.
There have been winners and losers in terms of personnel. Jack Broadbent, the YEP’s Shooting Star in 2021, played only once under Smith and is now at Castleford, along with Alex Mellor who - in part due to injury - didn’t feature at all following Smith’s arrival and was released midway through last year.
Liam Sutcliffe also moved on before the end of his contract, Matt Prior retired following the Grand Final and Brad Dwyer, whose deal ended last autumn, was left out of last season’s play-off campaign.
Kruise Leeming - who was signed, appointed skipper and a mainstay of the team under Agar - lost the captaincy at the start of this year and has now requested a move, despite being under contract until the end of 2024.
The big achiever since Agar’s exit is Jarrod O’Connor, who displaced Leeming from the starting side during the 2022 play-offs.
A fringe player at the start of last year - and set to spend at least some of the campaign on dual-registration with Bradford Bulls - he has been selected for every one of Smith’s games as coach.
Sam Walters, though left out of the side last week, was a Grand Finalist in 2022 and is semi-established in the first team squad, after struggling for opportunities during Agar’s reign.
Cameron Smith has also taken strides forward and clearly relishes his current role as a ball-playing loose-forward.
In terms of recruitment, Agar favoured experience while Smith has recruited a number of players in their teens or early 20s, often from Championship clubs.
Generally, most fans would probably say the style of rugby played by Rhinos has improved under Smith, though they remain prone to poor displays such as last week’s.
Rhinos proved they can string a run of performances together when they won five in a row towards the end of last season, but consistency has so far been lacking in 223.
Behind the scenes, Agar’s departure led to more change. Neither of his assistants, Sean Long and Jones-Buchanan, is still on the coaching staff, though the latter remains at the club and long-serving backroom stalwart Jason Davidson has also moved on.
There have been ups and downs over the past 12 months, Low points include this year’s round one loss at Warrington and last week’s defeat by Tigers; highs were the play-offs campaign and the recent win at Saints.
Overall, Agar’s decision a year ago worked out well for both parties. The former boss left on his own terms and is now back in the game, in the world’s top competition; while Rhinos are making steady progress under a new coach with fresh ideas.
They appear to be in better shape than this time last year, but Smith is in the early stages of a long-term project and there’s still a long way to go.