Leeds Rhinos 2021 Review - Injuries bite but future looks bright with prospects and quality signings
A FIVE-WORD summary of Leeds Rhinos’ season would be: could have been much worse.
Rhinos didn’t have a great, or even particularly good, year, but it was a lot better than it might have been under the circumstances.
They played four games in April - including a Betfred Challenge Cup tie - and lost them all.
Leeds won only two of their opening seven Super League matches - both against Wakefield Trinity - and at that stage they were looking over their shoulders at the bottom of the table.
Because of Leigh’s poor form there was never any real danger of Rhinos being relegated, but the play-offs looked a long way off. So, to climb the ladder to an eventual fifth-place finish and then reach the Super League semi-finals was a decent achievement and a success of sorts.
Realistically, coach Richard Agar’s side got as far as they were capable of going.
The 36-8 play-off defeat at St Helens last week highlighted how far adrift Rhinos are of the top clubs.
Leeds were beaten by Saints in all three competitions, conceding 102 points and scoring 32.
In the past six league or play-off encounters, Saints have scored 36 points three times, 40 twice and 48 once. Rhinos have managed to get into double figures only twice.
Leeds are also on a three-game losing run against league leaders Catalans Dragons, though they were in front at half-time in both this season’s meetings.
But Rhinos beat every other team in Super League, including notable away wins at third-placed Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors, who were fourth.
One of this season’s most memorable achievements was keeping Wigan scoreless at DW Stadium in August. That was the first time they had been nilled at that venue and Rhinos returned a month later in the play-offs and did it again.
There’s every reason to believe Rhinos would have been a top-four side, at least, this year, if they had managed to avoid such a long casualty list.
Injuries were the story of Rhinos’ season, right from the very first training session when Luke Gale suffered a torn pectoral muscle.
He managed to recover in time for round one, but broke a thumb in the second game of the campaign and - after a couple of suspensions - sustained a season-ending knee injury in August. Ironically, that game, away to Leigh Centurions, was the first and - as it turned out, only - time Rhinos’ six and seven were on the field together.
The combination lasted just 15 minutes before Gale was hurt. Gale played only 11 times, one fewer than 17-year-old forward Morgan Gannon.
He was also involved in off-field drama, in July, when he was replaced as captain by Matt Prior following a disagreement with Agar.
Rob Lui, Leeds’ first-choice stand-off, tore a quad muscle late in pre-season and was sidelined until July. He was injured again after two comeback matches, but managed to string a run of matches together over the final two months and was outstanding.
Rhinos’ luck with half-backs this year was all bad. In the final year of his contract, it should have been a big season for Callum McLelland and an opportunity to prove his Super League credentials, but a succession of injuries restricted him to just five appearances.
In total, Rhinos used 14 different half-back pairings, in just 27 competitive matches. Take that into consideration and fifth place becomes more of an accomplishment.
Injuries weren’t restricted to the halves. Full-back Jack Walker (foot) missed the entire season and of Leeds’ first-choice forwards, only hookers Kruise Leeming and Brad Dwyer, prop Matt Pryor and second-row Rhyse Martin managed to avoid a long layoff.
The fact Dwyer and Leeming were Rhinos’ top two try scorers - with 12 and 10 respectively - tells its own story.
Leeming showed his versatility by playing as an emergency half-back for much of the campaign.
He had an excellent season, being the only Rhinos player named in the Super League Dream Team.
The former Huddersfield man was invited to train with England early in the year and played against them for Combined Nations in the mid-season Test.
If he continues to progress at the same rate next term, he will be a contender for an England World Cup call-up.
Dwyer had another good year, particularly when used as an impact player off the bench and if the Dream Team had substitutes, he would surely be among them.
The Leeds player most unlucky to miss out on a Dream Team place was Mikolaj Oledzki, who made his international debut on the opposite side to Leeming in June.
The 22-year-old had a spell on the sidelines with a foot injury, but looked on a par with any front-rower in the competition and still has lots of improvement in him.
Lack of stability in the halves contributed to Rhinos struggling at times on attack, though they did manage to run in 60 points against Castleford Tigers and twice put more than 40 past relegated Leigh.
Rhinos’ defence was more solid and, other than Saints, only Tigers managed to score more than 30 against them.
That gives them a solid foundation, but Leeds need to cut out the errors and penalties which proved costly at times this year - and keep 13 players on the pitch for longer.
Suspensions, some of which were harsh, added to Rhinos’ selection problems, as did Covid which shut them down in pre-season and during May.
Off-season signing Zane Tetevano was affected by both and while there were good signs at times, he will be looking to do more next year. Fellow recruit King Vuniyayawa did well enough to earn a more lucrative deal at Salford Red Devils next year, but Kyle Eastmond’s return from rugby union was a flop and he played only twice before hanging up his boots.
There’s no doubt what was the main positive to come out of this season. Thirteen players aged 22 or younger featured for Rhinos’ first team and the current crop coming through are the best since the glory days of the Golden Generation.
Morgan already looks the part, just a year after stepping up from the scholarship.
Jack Broadbent, 20, operated all over the back division and showed tremendous maturity, as well as finishing power.
Centre Harry Newman, 21, returned strongly from his broken leg and there were real signs of promise from 20-year-old forwards Tom Holroyd and Jarrod O’Connor. Corey Johnson’s return to the club, a year after he ‘retired’ aged 19, was a huge bonus and Agar will at least have quality options in the hooking role next year.
As well as Vuniyayawa and Lui, Alex Sutcliffe and Konrad Hurrell move on, with Luke Briscoe and McLelland potentially set to leave.
Half-backs Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin have been confirmed for next season, along with second-rower James Bentley and all three should add something positive to what appears to be a talented squad, with a good blend of youth and experience.