LEEDS Rhinos have had a lot of luck with injuries this year – all of it bad. Only five games into the season, Rhinos are already down to just eight ever-presents – and a similar number of first-choice players missed last weekend’s morale-boosting win over Salford City Reds.
Coach Brian McDermott managed to find one positive out of the latest setback, the dislocated shoulder suffered by winger Ben Jones-Bishop just five minutes into the game six days ago.
“He’s not a prop,” said McDermott, who took over a squad including seven senior front-rowers and had none of them available for selection for the round five clash.
Two of those – Luke Ambler and Kyle Amor – are out on loan and McDermott is right to bemoan no-recall regulations, which mean his club is punished for assisting their rivals.
The situation will ease slightly this weekend, when Ben Cross returns to the side to face St Helens after serving a one-match ban, following his late and high challenge on Richard Myler in the defeat at Warrington Wolves a fortnight ago.
It is telling that, even with such an injury cloud over their props, Rhinos chose not to appeal that suspension.
Cross would no doubt say he got to Myler as quickly as he could, but one member of the refereeing department told this reporter: “If he had been any later, he wouldn’t have got there at all.”
The Aussie also missed the round two win at Hull, due to illness. An off-season signing from Newcastle Knights, Cross hasn’t pulled up any trees yet, but he is at a new club who are attempting to adapt to a different style of play.
The ground conditions and the weather aren’t what he is used to and, with other front-rowers dropping like flies, he isn’t playing in a dominant pack.
More will be required of the rugged 32-year-old, particularly until the likes of Kylie Leuluai, Ryan Bailey and Jamie Peacock return to the fray, but it’s too early to write him off yet. Cross, like the Rhinos team in general, will be more fairly judged in mid-season.
Leeds knew they’d have to cope without Peacock for the opening months of the campaign, but Leuluai is a big loss, as is Luke Burgess, who damaged a knee at Warrington and wasn’t risked in the Salford game, though he did offer to play.
McDermott will name his initial 19 for Saturday’s visit of St Helens today and there’s a chance Burgess could make his return, which would be a big boost as he was arguably Rhinos’ form forward.
Ryan Bailey hasn’t played at all this year, but underwent a second operation on his troublesome groin problem a week ago.
He is expected to be available shortly, which will also increase McDermott’s options – and Leuluai could make an earlier than predicted return from his muscle problem, so things are beginning to look up.
The wipe-out of Leeds’ experienced front-rowers meant an call-up for 18-year-old Cumbrian prop Brad Singleton against Salford last week, becoming the 50th Rhinos academy graduate to play for the club in Super League.
He is someone Leeds’ coaching staff think very highly of. No doubt they would have preferred to introduce him in a game when the likes of Bailey, Peacock or Leuluai were out there to provide some protection, but there was plenty to admire about the way the youngster handled his first taste of Super League action.
There were no signs of nerves, he drove the ball in strongly and also looked to offload, so it was an encouraging start.
Chris Clarkson was introduced in similar circumstances exactly a year ago. He went on to become an established first team squad member and had a Wembley appearance under his belt by the end of the campaign, so some good can come out of these injury pile-ups.
With Lee Smith having missed last week’s game due to a hamstring strain, Jones-Bishop’s injury is an added headache for McDermott, as well as a huge setback for the player himself, after he had spent the previous weekend in camp with England’s elite training squad.
Jones-Bishop had already had more than his fair share of injury worries, missing a portion of last term due to a fractured skull suffered in a win at Wigan, during his loan spell with Harlequins.
His latest setback will stretch Rhinos’ squad even further, particularly if Smith and Brett Delaney fail to recover from their own knocks in time for Saturday’s game.
There are no obvious contenders in the under-20s’ back division – Aston Wilson and Jamahl Chisholm have impressed this year, but they are not yet ready for first-team action – and so it may be a case of shuffling existing resources.
Carl Ablett switched into the centres last weekend, with Kallum Watkins moving on to the wing. Watkins made two remarkable try- saving tackles and crossed himself, while Ablett bagged a brace of late touchdowns – and won a Grand Final ring as a centre – so cover is there.
All the injuries make it difficult to evaluate Leeds’ start to the season, but it has been a curate’s egg.
They were very good against Hull, impressive for the final three-quarters of last Friday’s game and good late on in the round one win over Bradford Bulls, but poor against both Harlequins and Warrington.
Three wins from five is a fair reflection, though Bulls deserved at least a draw in Cardiff.
Realistically, Leeds’ aim should be to ensure they are in the top-six mix when long-term casualties Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock return to action, mid-way through the season.
Assuming both can regain their previous form, that will be like injecting two new players. Peacock is at the veteran stage now and his body has suffered plenty of wear and tear, but as a prop, he may find it easier to regain his feet than McGuire, whose style is based on pace, foot-work and the ability to step.
Peacock in particular is a talisman and his eventual return will give Rhinos a massive psychological lift as much as anything else. By the time he comes into the side – the most optimistic estimates suggest that could be late next month – Rhinos should have come to terms with the different, more expansive style of play being promoted by McDermott.
That has been only partially successful so far and its effectiveness depends on a strong defence. Teams that chuck the ball around in the manner Leeds have been doing will inevitably make mistakes and so they have to be tough enough to keep their line intact when they gift possession to the opposition.
In the first four games this year Leeds weren’t able to do that and the frequency with which they conceded tries from dummy-half or first receiver near their own line was alarming.
There were signs against Salford – admittedly not the best of opposition – that they may be addressing that.
Saints are not in good form, but they will provide a sterner test and it will be fascinating to see how Rhinos cope.
It is a long time since Leeds and Saints have met when both teams have been in such inconsistent form and defeat on Saturday will leave one of them with a lot of ground to make up.
You can never write off this St Helens outfit and they have a habit of confounding the critics, but Leeds are also masters at overcoming early-season adversity.
Assuming Leeds are getting the worst of their injuries over with at the start of the season – and that other clubs’ time will come – Rhinos could yet have a say in the destiny of this year’s title race.