Chief upbeat over Leeds Rhinos' future at end of 'bizarre' season

Coral Challenge Cup holders Leeds Rhinos are a “leaner, but stronger” organisation now than at the start of 2020, chief executive Gary Hetherington says.

Monday, 16th November 2020, 4:45 pm
Rhinos players celebrate their Cup semi-final win over Wigan. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

Hetherington has painted an optimistic picture of the club at the end of what he admitted has been a “bizarre season for everyone and a unique experience”.

As well as winning the Cup, Rhinos finished fifth in Betfred Super League and qualifed for the play-offs for the first time in three seasons, but their commercial operation was badly affected by coronavirus and matches being played behind closed doors.

Reflecting on Leeds’ year, which ended with a play-offs defeat by Catalans Dragons last week, Hetherington summarised it as “a season filled throughout with so much uncertainty”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Gary Hetherington. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

He said: “The first point I would make is the team and the staff have been outstanding, both on and off the field.

“I think we have dealt with the Covid threat very professionally, everyone has been totally compliant with all the strict protocols we’ve put in place and all our players and staff have been exemplary in the way they’ve conducted themselves.”

Hetherington described Rhinos’ on-field performances as “strong” and selected the Cup semi-final win over Wigan Warriors as the best moment.

“The quality of that performance in such a big game, I thought, was a real highlight and the Challenge Cup final itself was memorable,” he recalled

“The other highlight in terms of the team has been what I’d call the reserve team, their performances in particular against Catalans, Warrington and St Helens.

“That provided an opportunity for so many of our young players and I thought we came out of it extremely well.

“What it showed is we have real strength in depth, which is very encouraging.”

Off the field, Hetherington said: “Another highlight has been the support from all our fans, sponsors and key partners.

“Their support has been terrific. We set out on this adventure with a 20,000 crowd at our opening game, the double-header in February and it finished with Wigan collecting the league leaders’ trophy against Huddersfield at an empty Headingley.

“The start and finish was quite bizarre and once we got into March and the lockdown, that created so much uncertainty.

“We thought initially we had a three-month problem and it turned out to be a much longer one.”

Hetherington has said all along the size of Rhinos’ business, employing around 150 people, made the challenge greater for Leeds than other clubs, but he stressed: “Here we are in November and we have survived.

“We have survived primarily through salary cuts that have been taken by all the players and staff throughout the year, right from March.

“We have had to make quite a lot of cost-cutting measures, closing parts of the business down and furlough has been a God-send.

“We have had specific support from quite a number of our key sponsors, financial support and we have had the government loan.

“All those have ensured the survival of our business and our club and I think we have come towards the end of 2020 as a leaner, but stronger organisation.

“It is an organisation that has improved in quite a number of ways, not least in the rugby department.

“A special mention goes to the whole department, but Kevin [Sinfield, director of rugby], Richard [Agar, coach], James [Webster] and Jamie Jones-Buchanan [assistant-coaches] in particular.

“They have led a transformation of that organisation in many ways, all the backroom staff bought into it and all the players have as well.

“That has been a lot of progress in a short space of time and I think Covid has actually brought us together as an organisation, particularly the coaching staff and the players, going through the challenges they have, having to look out for each other.

“That has had a positive effect in an adverse situation.”

Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United, With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe.