Leeds Rhinos review - looking back at stories which made the headlines in 2020

Leeds Rhinos went into 2020 with raised expectations after beginning to get themselves back on track the previous year.

Thursday, 31st December 2020, 6:00 am
Brad Dwyer earned a new two-year contract in 2020. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

That improvement continued as coach Richard Agar’s side won the Coral Challenge Cup for the first time since 2015 - which was an unexpected bonus - and achieved their pre-season target of a top-five finish.

Overshadowing everything was the coronavirus pandemic, which shut the sport down from March until August and the plight of Rhinos legend Rob Burrow who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in December, 2019.

Leeds immediately launched a fund-raising appeal to support Burrow and his family and the first major event was a pre-season game against Bradford Bulls in January, originally arranged as a testimonial game for Jamie Jones-Buchanan.

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James Donaldson suffered a fractured back against Huddersfield in August. Picture by James Hardisty.

He immediately offered to split the proceeds with Burrow and a full house of 20,000 turned up at Emerald Headingley to see Burrow - along with fellow members of Rhinos’ golden generation - make one final appearance.

Leeds also recorded an encouraging pre-season win at Wigan Warriors that month, but their Betfred Super League campaign got off to a miserable start, in February, when they were crushed 30-4 at home by Hull.

Only one of those sides looked capable of winning silverware this year - and it wasn’t Leeds - but after that setback, Rhinos began to build some momentum, recording impressive wins over Hull KR, Salford Red Devils and Warrington Wolves, when Jack Walker suffered a fractured foot and Richie Myler stepped in as an emergency full-back.

Leeds’ most successful coach, Brian McDermott, returned to Headingley on March 5, but his newly-promoted Toronto Wolfpack side were put to the sword 66-12.

The following week Leeds were due to visit Catalans Dragons, but - the day before the match, which was set to be played behind closed doors - they opted not to travel after on-loan Joe Greenwood showed possible symptoms of Covid-19.

The RFL threatened a “sanction” against Rhinos, but later decided not to take disciplinary action. Three days later, rugby league was suspended because of the pandemic.

Later that month Rhinos’ director of rugby Kevin Sinfield ran a solo marathon in aid of Burrow’s fund and raised £10,000 and in April the sport’s layoff was extended, with Rhinos’ players and staff on furlough.

Rhinos’ scholarship coach Mark Butterill joined the England Youth backroom staff in May, when Greenwood returned to parent club Wigan without having played a game for Leeds, injured forward Stevie Ward displayed a new talent, acting in a radio drama and 12 players from the club’s women’s team were named in England squads.

In June, Rhinos were mourning former players Ted Barnard and George Simpson and Bill Ramsey passed away in July, a month which also saw the resumption of training ahead of Super League’s August return.

Liam Sutcliffe submitted a transfer request, Rhinos youngsters Loui McConnell and Liam Whitton signed with Featherstone Rovers for 2021 and Brad Dwyer penned a new two-year contract.

Hooker Kruise Leeming made his debut, against his former club, when Luke Gale’s golden point drop goal earned Rhinos a 27-26 win over Huddersfield Giants in their first game after lockdown, on August 2. Back-to-back defeats by St Helens and Wigan followed before Leeds returned to winning ways against Salford.

That month, teenager Liam Tindall signed a full-time deal, James Donaldson was recovering from a fracture to his back suffered against Giants and Toronto’s Bodene Thompson joined Leeds on loan, along with Featherstone Rovers duo Brett Ferres and James Harrison.

In September, Leeds racked up victories over Huddersfield and Hull KR twice - the second being marred by Harry Newman’s broken leg - before a second-string side, including a host of young debutants and the returning Walker, was beaten by Catalans Dragons.

Myler signed a new two-year contract, but Dom Crosby announced his retirement because of a long-term knee injury; club great Ray Batten died, on his 75th birthday, Dwyer went into isolation after testing positive for Covid-19 and Adam Cuthbertson signed for York City Knights.

October was all about the Challenge Cup as Leeds produced a superb wet-weather performance to beat Wigan in the last four and two weeks later Gale’s late drop goal secured the trophy by the narrowest of margins against Salford Red Devils at an empty Wembley.

Rhinos avenged their earlier loss to Hull and the youngsters put up another brave display, against Warrington, but the Cup success was followed by defeats to St Helens and Wakefield Trinity, either side of a win over Castleford Tigers.

Sean Long was confirmed as Rhinos’ assistant-coach for 2021, in place of James Webster who returned to Featherstone Rovers, but joined the club early, in November, after Agar was forced to self-isolate.

Leeds won at Wakefield to secure fifth place in the table, but a 26-14 defeat by Catalans Dragons in the play-offs ended their season.

Also in November, Mikolaj Oledzki extended his contract until the end of 2024, Newman was named Super League young player of the year and Konrad Hurrell and Ash Handley, the competition’s top try scorer, were included in the Dream Team.

Sinfield’s feat of raising more than £2m for the MND Association by running seven marathons in successive days dominated the December headlines.

Thompson agreed a two-year contract and youngster Muizz Mustapha joined Hull KR on loan after also penning a new Rhinos contract.

Leeds signed New Zealand Test prop Zane Tetevano from Penrith Panthers, but Ava Seumanufagai was released from his contract for “personal reasons”.

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