Leeds Rhinos coach Rohan Smith talks team for Warrington, injury latest and impressive 'project' signings
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Smith has named a strong initial 21-man squad, despite the absence of four first-choice players through injury, but says he doesn’t expect his side to be firing on all cylinders straight away.
The coach made frequent changes during Rhinos’ four first team trial games, used players in unfamiliar roles and did not risk anyone carrying minor knocks, all of which could have a bearing on team cohesion in the early rounds.
“As a coach you are always hopeful your performance is going to be fluid, but I also understand rugby league is not a game of being pretty all the time,” Smith said.
“Being able to grind it and work hard and battle is equally as important as being fluent and flowing.
“We are hoping to have a good blend of that, but number one, we have got to compete and we have got to be physical.”
Smith’s first squad of the new campaign includes six of Rhinos’ nine off-season signings with Derrell Olpherts, Sam Lisone, Justin Sangare and James McDonnell all in contention, along with youngsters Luis Roberts and Leon Ruan.
Fellow recruits Nene Macdonald and Luke Hooley are injured and rookie Toby Warren is not selected.
“What we see in round one might not be what we see in three, four, five or 20 weeks’ time,” Smith said of his selection. “I think there’s some versatility in our squad, which I am excited by.”
Whoever makes the 17, it will be a new-look Leeds team. Five of the side beaten by St Helens in last year’s Grand Final are no longer at the club, along with Brad Dwyer who was a non-playing reserve, but Smith would not be drawn on whether he feels he has more options now.
“I haven’t reflected on comparing our squad to last year,” he stated. “But we certainly do have versatility and depth, even though we are missing four or five starting players for round one. We still feel we are fielding a very strong team.”
The two surprise names in Rhinos’ initial squad are 20-year-old former Leigh Centurions three-quarter Roberts, who spent much of last season on loan at Widnes Vikings and second-rower Leon Ruan, 19, signed from Betfred League One Doncaster.
Smith admitted their inclusion is a “pat on the back” for the progress made in pre-season. He said: “Selection in the 21 man squad for round one is a good accolade for those kids.
“I very much believe they are projects, but they are also not too far away from being ready to play some part in Super League.
“As I have said previously, it is a lot different being able to play every week, but those kids have done well.”
Macdonald (quad muscle), Harry Newman (hamstring), Mikolaj Oledzki (shoulder), James Bentley (knee) and Hooley (ankle) remain on Rhinos’ injury list, along with teenager Max Simpson who suffered anterior cruciate ligament damage in training and is not expected to play this year.
The more senior casualties “still have a bit of work to do”, according to Smith, but are “trending in the right direction and on track”. He stressed: “Sometimes at the back end of these long-term rehabs it is hard to be exactly specific [when players will] return, but they are reaching milestones and progressing. This week is very much about who is playing.”
While Macdonald, Newman and Oledzki all suffered their injuries last season, Bentley and Hooley were hurt in training. Smith revealed: “Bentley has a PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) injury to his knee. Those ones are a little awkward at times, from my experience in the game.
“Watching guys recover from them, they don’t tend to go in a straight line as far as their recovery goes. He has progressed really well in the last week or two and done some good running, but he has got a bit to do yet.”
Though the absence of Oledzki and Bentley has reduced Smith’s options up front, he insisted he still had “some difficult decisions” to make over his pack for Thursday.
“There’s a lot of competition and a lot of things to consider in our forward pack,” he pledged. “There’s been a lot of good performers through pre-season - and also not to discard what people have done in the past.”