Leeds Rhinos: Coach Richard Agar says injury-hit squad 'hung in and showed a lot of spirit' to seal fifth place in Super League and secure play-off tie at Wigan Warriors
They didn't quite end the league season where they’d hoped to be when it started, but coach Richard Agar has praised the way his Leeds Rhinos side have “hung in” during a difficult six months.
Thanks to their 36-12 win over Hull KR, Rhinos climbed a place during the final round to finish fifth in the Betfred Super League table for the second successive year, winning 13 of their 24 league matches for a success rate of 54.17 per cent.
Last year’s win percentage was 58.82, but they played seven fewer matches.
At times this year Rhinos have had a dozen or more players unavailable, because of injury or suspension and they lost four successive league games - plus a Challenge Cup tie - in April and the start of May.
The aim in pre-season was to improve on last year’s placing and challenge the top two and though that wasn’t achieved, Agar is proud of how his squad have dealt with unprecedented adversity.
The coach, who took charge in 2019, admitted: “We wanted to finish in the top-four, that goes without saying.”
But he added: “I have never experienced a year like this, when we have lost so many players through injury.
“We didn’t have a pre-season, we lost players through injury; we’ve had some suspensions and Covids; we’ve had a really congested fixture list at times when other clubs haven’t and I think that has played a part.
“Some of our flatter performances have come on the back of some of the heavy workload we’ve had.
“I think we’ve hung in there, we’ve played 24 [league] games and we won the first one and then lost our next four.
“To get right up there and be scratching the top four, I think we have hung in there and showed a lot of spirit.”
Full-back Jack Walker has not played at all this year and Leeds’ first-choice half-backs, Rob Lui and Luke Gale, played together for only 15 minutes.
With so many first-choice players being hit by injury, Rhinos’ fringe men - including 17-year-old Morgan Gannon, who has played 13 games so far - have had to step up.
“The kids have done us a great job throughout the year,” Agar reflected.
“But we know at times with the kids you are going to have to wear some inexperience and inconsistency, which we have seen.
“We saw that a little bit last week against a really top quality St Helens team.
“But we have hung in there, we are in the play-offs and I know we will prepare well and give it a really good crack.
“All in all, it has been a very difficult year to navigate and manage - to train even.
“We haven’t trained like you would normally all year, we’ve had to do it in different ways and I think some of the stuff that’s gone against us this year could have finished a less determined team.”
Only Wigan Warriors, who fulfilled every fixture, played more league games than Rhinos. The one match they did not fit in was a home clash with St Helens in June, when they were shut down for two weeks because of coronavirus.
“Everybody has had disruption this year,” Agar conceded. “But just looking at our spine and our halves all year tells you the amount of disruption we’ve had.
“None of those changes - apart from maybe the odd one - have been selection changes, most of them have been enforced.
“I am really proud of the way we have stuck together and our boys still believe.
“They have never stopped believing, going back seven or eight weeks we always felt it would come to the Hull and Hull KR games - that we’d have to win those games [to qualify for the play-offs].
“We have gone out and done a really good job in both those games. I am really pleased, we are in with a shout and it’s all to play for this week.”
Agar’s men are now preparing for an elimination play-off at fourth-placed Wigan on Thursday, when Zane Tetevano will be available following suspension and fellow forwards Mikolaj Oledzki, Alex Mellor and King Vuniyayawa could be in contention after injury.
Rhinos won 14-0 at DW Stadium - their first win there in eight years - less than a month ago. Agar predicted this week’s clash will be a “totally different style of game” to last Friday against Hull KR.
“We will have to think about team selection, we have got some guys coming back,” he said.
“Going to Wigan in a play-off at this time of year, it is going to be a tough game. Defensively you know you have to really aim up and it’s a play-off game, so I’d expect a really tight, intense contest.”
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