How Leeds Rhinos have defied the odds this season – Peter Smith
AT THE start of 2021, Leeds Rhinos looked capable of a top-four finish in Betfred Super League.
When they were setting goals in pre-season, that was probably the minimum target for Rhinos’ players and coaching staff and, with two games remaining, it’s still a possibility, if an unlikely one.
Given all the adversity thrown at them this year – and a disappointing run of results early in the campaign – Rhinos have done surprisingly well to be fifth after 23 of the 25 Betfred Super League rounds.
A win percentage of 54.55 isn’t anything to get too excited about but, at the start of May when they suffered a fourth-successive league defeat at Huddersfield Giants, it was only 20 per cent.
They have won 11 (64.17 per cent) of their 17 games since then, which would comfortably be good enough for fourth place over the season as a whole.
Realistically, this year is at best a three-horse race, between league leaders Catalans Dragons, defending champions St Helens and Warrington Wolves. In terms of consistency, there’s a gap between those teams and Rhinos who, in league and cup this year, have played them a total of five times and won only once, at Warrington in July.
But, they led home and away against Catalans before collapsing in the second half, gave Saints a scare with a makeshift side in a Cup tie at TW Stadium and were beaten on the bell by Warrington at Emerald Headingley.
Most teams have struggled with injuries this year, particularly during a season when so many matches have been packed into such a short space of time. July 1, when Rhinos faced Leigh Centurions at Headingley, was 68 days ago and Rhinos have played 13 matches in that time. That would test a fully-fit squad, but Rhinos haven’t had that at any stage this year.
Jack Walker, who suffered a recurrence of a foot problem in pre-season, is set to miss the whole campaign and almost every senior player has had at least one lengthy lay-off.
The fact two hookers, Brad Dwyer and Kruise Leeming, are Rhinos’ joint-top try scorers this year, with 11 each, tells the story of their season.
When Richie Myler was switched from full-back to scrum-half for last Saturday’s must-win Magic Weekend clash with Hull, they became Rhinos’ 13th different half-back combination this year, in 23 competitive games.
For the record, the full list is: Liam Sutcliffe/Luke Gale (seven matches), Leeming/Lui (four), Leeming/Gale (two) and – all these have played together just once – Rhyse Martin/Cameron Smith, Martin/Kyle Eastmond, Myler/Eastmond, L Sutcliffe/Leeming, Callum McLelland/L Sutcliffe, McLelland/Gale, L Sutcliffe/Lui, Lui/Gale, McLelland/Lui and Lui/Myler.
Leeds’ longest run of games with an unchanged half-back pairing was three, in May, when Sutcliffe partnered Gale in successive matches against Wakefield Trinity, Hull and Castleford Tigers.
Add in the fact that in-form Mikolaj Oledzki suffered a season-ending injury at the start of August and another big middle, Zane Tetevano, has been restricted by suspensions and coronavirus to just 12 appearances and the question becomes not so much why have Leeds done so poorly, as how have they managed to be as high on the table as they are?
Rhinos are a big club, with more resources than most and shouldn’t be scrambling around trying to finish in the top half but, put in context, their year hasn’t been quite as poor as the league ladder suggests.
Wins at Warrington, Hull and Wigan Warriors provided a glimpse of what Leeds might have been capable of with more of their squad to select from on a regular basis.
There’s no guarantee, but Leeds are surely due some better fortune injury-wise next year.
As well as three eye-catching signings, their young players will be a season more experienced and the extra-time win over Hull proved there’s nothing wrong with Rhinos’ spirit.
At least one more win to seal a play-off spot would be nice but, even if they miss out, 2022 promises to be much better.
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