James Bentley profile: What Leeds Rhinos can expect from former St Helens star
Grand Final winner James Bentley will be following in some illustrious footsteps when he makes his Leeds Rhinos debut next season.
Like two of the club’s all-time greats, Garry Schofield and Ellery Hanley, Bentley was born in Leeds, but made his name elsewhere before finally being recruited by his home city club.
The back-rower, who can also play at centre or hooker, has a long way to go to achieve the sort of status Schofield and Hanley enjoyed at Leeds, but his signing was a significant coup by Rhinos and a statement of intent.
Bentley supported Rhinos as a child - watching games from the South Stand - and began his rugby league journey at the Oulton Raiders community club.
He joined Bradford Bulls’ academy ranks and made one substitute appearance for the first team in 2016, but his breakthrough came the following season when he scored 18 tries in 27 games and was named the Championship’s young player of the year.
He scooped the same award at his club and was also Bulls’ players’ player of the year, in a season when they were relegated to League One.
Rhinos were among several top-flight clubs interested in Bentley, but he opted to sign for Saints.
He had dual-registration/loan spells back in the Championship with Sheffield Eagles (three tries from 16 games in 2018) and Leigh Centurions (touching down six times in seven appearances the following year), but established himself as a genuine Super League star in 2020.
He featured 19 times that season, scoring five tries and was a starting second-rower when Saints beat Wigan Warriors in the Grand Final at Hull.
His form earned him Saints’ young player of the year honour.
Unfortunately for Bentley, in 2021 he suffered the sort of bad luck with injuries which dogged Rhinos throughout the campaign.
At the time he signed a two-year deal with Leeds in June, having rejected Saints’ contract offer, he was recovering from a broken leg suffered against Leigh at the end of April.
He returned in August, but was sidelined again just weeks later, with a back injury sustained in Saints’ Magic Weekend defeat by Catalans Dragons.
That ended his season and was his final appearance for the Merseyside club.
When he was fit, he was one of the first names on boss Kristian Woolf’s teamsheet, which is an indication of the quality of player Rhinos are bringing in.
At 24, Bentley is highly-regarded, but - Rhinos will hope - is yet to reach his peak.
He will add to a position in which coach Richard Agar already has strength in depth.
Rhinos haven’t signed Bentley to make up the numbers and, when fit, will be one of Agar’s first-choice back-rowers next year, but Rhyse Martin, Alex Mellor, Cameron Smith, Bodene Thompson and James Donaldson will also be keen to stake a claim, alongside youngsters Morgan Gannon, Jarrod O’Connor and Sam Walters.
Bentley’s arrival may allow Thompson and Donaldson to focus more on the front-row position, which is an area where Leeds do lack some depth.
In Bentley, Rhinos are certainly getting a fierce competitor, who won’t take a backwards step.
During his brief run in Saints’ team between injuries this year, he was sin-binned for squaring up to Castleford Tigers’ Peter Mata’utia and yellow carded again in the following game, when he came out on top in a fierce personal duel with Wigan Warriors’ England captain John Bateman.
Leeds had their own disciplinary issues this year and won’t want a repeat, but - provided he stays on the field - Bentley will bring a new dimension to their pack.
As a modern-day second-rower, Bentley is the complete package; he has skill and speed, is a powerful runner and hits hard in defence.
Rhinos will be looking to move the ball wide in 2022 and that will suit Bentley, who is also a proven try scorer.
Agar has stressed he has no concerns over Bentley’s fitness and the player is expected to be available for Super League round one.
He is on a relatively short-term deal and is the sort of player likely to attract attention from NRL clubs, but - alongside the other young forwards now beginning to make their mark for Leeds - will be a crucial cog in what is shaping up to be one of Super League’s strongest packs.
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