Leeds Rhinos' James McDonnell talks exceeding expectations, learning key lessons and high hopes for 2024
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Before joining Rhinos last autumn, McDonnell had played only six Betfred Super League games in three years at hometown club Wigan Warriors and spent much of 2022 on loan with then-Championship outfit Leigh Centurions.
Signed as a youngster with potential and expected to be a squad man this year, rather than first-choice, the second-rower made his Leeds debut in a win at St Helens in March. After that only a couple of short-term injuries kept him out of the team and he went on to score four tries in 23 appearances, all as a starter.
At 23, McDonnell still has his best years ahead and could be a key member of the pack for years to come, if he can build on his debut season. The former England Knights player reflected: “For me it has been a positive year, I’ve made quite good progress.”
“I’ve played a lot more [than expected]. I had a chat with Rohan [Smith, Rhinos’ coach] about my season and he was impressed with the number of games I played, which was above expectations.
“I went from playing three games of Super League last year over the span of seven months to 23 in the same amount of time and that’s a big jump. I will be all the better for it and ready for a similar amount of load next year.”
McDonnell’s former Wigan teammates celebrated a double this year, finishing top of the table and going on to lift the big prize after beating Catalans Dragons in the Grand Final.
Leigh, including some of the players McDonnell teamed up with in 2022, won the other major trophy with a Wembley victory over Hull KR in the Challenge Cup final, but the Leeds man insisted he has no regrets.
He said: “Despite the ups and downs of this year, I think this has been the best place to really come and experience all that - the highs and lows of a Super League season. I am going to be better 10 fold for that. It’s a lot for me to take on board and learn from.”
Rhinos will have a much-changed squad next term, with six signings having been announced so far including 2022 Man of Steel Brodie Croft and McDonnell reckons they are set for a more successful campaign.
“Not all based on the squad,” he insisted. “I think we had a very capable squad this year, but there has been some distractions and some unforeseen circumstances. I just feel we have learned a lot from what we have done this year. I am not saying the squad is going to be stronger, but hopefully it is a more cohesive squad and we can learn from the mistakes of the past.”
Other than internationals Harry Newman and Rhyse Martin, most of Rhinos’ squad are now in their off-season, but the first batch of players will report back to begin training on Monday, November 6, just two days after the third Test between England and Tonga at AMT Headingley brings the 2023 campaign to an end.
McDonnell is using his time off to “refocus, reflect on the season just been, look ahead to the season coming and get ready for that”.
The Ireland international said: “I am going to get a lot more work in than I did last year, within the World Cup being held then. We’ll be getting all the boys together earlier than we did last year and getting that team cohesion going should be a quicker process.
“We’ve only got a couple of the boys away this time, most of us are staying UK-based. The off-season is a chance to go and see family and stuff like that, then we can come in and really focus on the task ahead.”