Leeds Rhinos comment - Challenge Cup holders have ingredients in place for another season of progress
There are several reasons why Leeds Rhinos should go into the 26th Super League season in good spirits, but also one or two nagging doubts.
Rhinos’ task is to maintain the progress made over the past almost two years, since Richard Agar rather unexpectedly took over as coach in May, 2019.
Qualification for the play-offs for the second successive campaign is a minimum requirement, but having laid a platform last season, Leeds really should be looking to push into the top four and challenge champions St Helens and league leaders Wigan Warriors.
Rhinos won three fewer games than Wigan in 2020 and were two victories behind Saints, which is not an unbridgeable gap.
Beating the top sides, though, remains a problem.
In the league or play-offs last year, Leeds won only once against teams who finished above them, a 36-0 trouncing of Warrington Wolves at Emerald Headingley in February.
They were beaten twice by Saints and Catalans Dragons and once each by Wigan and Warrington.
Clearly, Rhinos will have to do better against those sides if they are going to achieve anything this season, though the 2020 record didn’t quite tell the full story.
Agar’s men showed what they are capable of with a brilliant win over Wigan in a Challenge Cup semi-final, which was their best performance since the Golden Generation broke up.
And one of the defeats by Saints and the league losses to Catalans and Warrington all came when Leeds fielded a makeshift side before or after big Cup ties.
Rhinos would have fancied their chances of beating both Catalans and Warrington if they had gone full strength.
Rhinos’ recruitment in the off-season has been anything but conventional.
New Zealand prop Zane Tetevano has star pedigree, having played in two or the last three NRL Grand Finals and, assuming he adapts to the game over here and stays fit, will be an outstanding acquisition.
Reports from the camp suggest he has already lifted standards in training.
King Vuniyayawa is a project. A big ‘middle’ - as props or loose-forwards are known these days - he is unproven at the top level, having played just five NRL games for New Zealand Warriors last year.
But he is big and athletic and apparently runs and hits hard so has the raw materials to develop into something special. And if not, he is only on a one-year deal, so there’s not a lot of risk involved.
Then there’s Kyle Eastmond, who is a combination of both. He is certainly a quality rugby player, but having spent a decade in union there’s an element of the unknown about how he will fare back in the 13-a-side game.
Players who go to union rarely come back as good as they were when they left, but Eastmond grew up in league, is more mature now - though far from old at 31 - and could bring a new dimension to Leeds’ attack. Again, reports from the camp are positive.
A fit and in-form combination of Luke Gale and Kyle Eastmond in the halves is an exciting prospect.
Injuries - as well as a Covid outbreak - have cast a shadow over Leeds’ pre-season and they won’t be at full-strength in round one.
Jack Walker’s latest layoff is a big blow to him and the team and caused a rethink after Richie Myler was set to play as a half this year.
All four first-choice pivots - Eastmond wasn’t risked and Gale, Rob Lui and Callum McLelland were injured - missed the trial game against Huddersfield and it is likely to take a while for Leeds’ attack to gel.
But there’s no shortage of firepower once it does. Ash Handley, who has a knee injury, is a big loss in the opening stages, but Leeds have cover and it will be interesting to see how, once Harry Newman is available, Agar fits three players - him, Konrad Hurrell and Liam Sutcliffe - into two places in the centres.
Another big body would not have gone amiss in the pack, after Adam Cuthbertson and Ava Seumanufagai moved on, but the plan seems to be for the likes of Bodene Thompson, James Donaldson and Cameron Smith to play in the middle of the field.
Rhinos’ management are particularly excited about the young players in their squad, most of whom had a brief taste of Super League action last year.
Second-rower Sam Walters and centre Jack Broadbent are at the front of the queue, but every one of the players towards the bottom end of the squad has the potential to become a Super League regular, which isn’t always the case.
Long-term, the future looks rosy. That might not add up to a top-two place this year, but Rhinos should continue to head in the right direction.
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