Leeds Rhinos' Jarrod O'Connor talks good start, Warrington Wolves challenge and fighting for No 9 role

Jarrod O’Connor reckons Leeds Rhinos can be happy with their best start to a season since before the Covid pandemic, but insists they must, can and will get better.
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Rhinos have won four of their opening six Betfred Super League fixtures going into Friday’s visit of Warrington Wolves and began the round sitting sixth in the table, just two points behind the leaders. “As a team, it’s probably the best start we’ve had since I’ve been here,” O’Connor, who made his debut in 2020, said.

“I think we are starting to build more and more. We had that Saints game in the Cup where we know we could have done a lot better, but other than that I think we’ve had a steady start to the season and it’s time to kick on.”

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The former Widnes Academy player added: “The spine is starting to click a little bit more now and our plays are starting to come off and we look a lot more dangerous, which is what we’ve been working on. Hopefully the longer we keep playing together, it is only going to get better and better.”

Leeds Rhinos can be satisfied with their start to the season, Jarrod O'Coinnor reckons. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.Leeds Rhinos can be satisfied with their start to the season, Jarrod O'Coinnor reckons. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.
Leeds Rhinos can be satisfied with their start to the season, Jarrod O'Coinnor reckons. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

Though Rhinos may be a team who flourish on firm grounds and in summer conditions, O’Connor stressed they are working on being better at wet-weather rugby. They toughed out a 26-6 victory at Castleford Tigers in difficult conditions last week and O’Connor confirmed: “That’s one thing we have spoken about, we don’t want to just be a team that plays well in dry weather. With the players we’ve got we know we are going to play well in better conditions, but when you get towards the back end of the season and it does start to get rainy again - especially in Grand Final week - you want to be able to play in those wet weather conditions.”

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Leeds were under heavy pressure throughout the first half at the Jungle, but kept Tigers scoreless and that will send them into this week in high spirits, according to O’Connor. He said: “Defensively it gives us some confidence, but the first half showed us we need to tidy up a bit, which we definitely did in the second half. We came out and got the ball rolling with the early tries we scored.”

Friday’s visitors Warrington have an identical record to Rhinos, their two defeats coming against Catalans Dragons, a side Leeds beat in round three. “They are in a pretty similar position,” O’Connor noted.

Jarrod O'Connor is competing with Andy Ackers, pictured, to be Leeds Rhinos' starting hooker. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.Jarrod O'Connor is competing with Andy Ackers, pictured, to be Leeds Rhinos' starting hooker. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.
Jarrod O'Connor is competing with Andy Ackers, pictured, to be Leeds Rhinos' starting hooker. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.
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“They have started steady, but they’ll obviously want to kick on as well. I think this will be another good test to make sure we are going in the right direction and I am pretty confident we’ll get the job done.

“There’s been a lot of close games between us and Warrington and it always makes for an entertaining game. We’ll look to lift the intensity going into it.”

Rhinos are without two of the team which started last week’s match, as prop Justin Sangare serves a one-week ban and second-rower James Bentley is unavailable because of concussion, but O’Connor reckons whoever comes into the team will be fired up to impress.

He noted: “We’ve got plenty of forwards who want to prove they should be playing every week, like Donno [James Donaldson] and Tom [Holroyd], who missed out last week. They will be ready to go and they’ll come out with loads of intensity.”

Cameron Smith is set to continue at loose-forward after having a one-match ban overturned on appeal. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.Cameron Smith is set to continue at loose-forward after having a one-match ban overturned on appeal. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.
Cameron Smith is set to continue at loose-forward after having a one-match ban overturned on appeal. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.
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O’Connor was on stand-by to play at loose-forward this week, but - after Cameron Smith’s one-match suspension was overturned on appeal - he is now likely to continue in the the substitute role he has filled in all seven previous games in 2024.

The 22-year-old, who has played in every game since Rohan Smith was appointed coach 24 months ago, makes no secret of the fact he wants to be Rhinos’ first-choice hooker. Andy Ackers took that status when he joined Leeds from Salford Red Devils in pre-season and O’Connor believes competition brings the best out of both men.

“I’ve been getting different game time,” he reflected. “All games are different, but I am still working and trying to push. Obviously I want to be the starting nine, but all I can do is work as hard as possible in training and do what I can on the pitch, then just be patient and see what the year brings.”

At times last week O’Connor was on the field at the same time as Ackers and Smith and he will put his hand up to play at 13, either during games or from the start, if that becomes necessary. “Cam and I were sharing that [loose-forward] role,” he added of last week’s match.

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“It helps speed the ruck up when me, Cam and Ackers are on at the same time. It provides something a bit different to having three big lads on the pitch, which sometimes you want. I only started playing nine when Rohan came in, two years ago, so [loose-forward] is not something I am unfamiliar with. I am pretty confident playing there and still really enjoy it.”

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