Leeds Rhinos season review: signings assessed, what went wrong, how Brodie Croft could put it right

If Leeds Rhinos had known at the start of the 2023 season they’d win away to St Helens, Wigan Warriors, Warrington Wolves and Hull FC, a top-four finish, at least, would have seemed nailed on.
Richie Myler leads the celebrations after Rhinos' win at Wigan in June. Picture by Ed Sykes/SWpix.com.Richie Myler leads the celebrations after Rhinos' win at Wigan in June. Picture by Ed Sykes/SWpix.com.
Richie Myler leads the celebrations after Rhinos' win at Wigan in June. Picture by Ed Sykes/SWpix.com.

Rhinos duly achieved all those victories, as well as beating Huddersfield Giants twice and ending Catalans Dragons’ undefeated start to the year in round six, but as things panned out, it was one of the most frustrating and disappointing campaigns in the club’s modern history.

After three successive fifth-placed finishes and a Grand Final appearance in 2022, Leeds should have been able to kick on towards the top of the ladder, but instead went backwards.

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Eighth, therefore failing to qualify for the play-offs - and falling at the first hurdle in the Challenge Cup for a third successive year - was not good enough for a club of Rhinos’ size.

Rhinos let themselves down against sides at the foot of the table, including losses to Castleford at the Jungle in March, when Nene Macdonald and Derrell Olpherts were pictured and June's Magic Weekend. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.Rhinos let themselves down against sides at the foot of the table, including losses to Castleford at the Jungle in March, when Nene Macdonald and Derrell Olpherts were pictured and June's Magic Weekend. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.
Rhinos let themselves down against sides at the foot of the table, including losses to Castleford at the Jungle in March, when Nene Macdonald and Derrell Olpherts were pictured and June's Magic Weekend. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

It was a fair reflection, though, of a team who beat five of the top seven sides, but also lost to all four rivals who finished below them.

Second-bottom Castleford Tigers won six games all season and two of those were against Leeds. Rhinos were also victims of relegated Wakefield Trinity’s first victory, out of four in the entire campaign.

Inconsistent is an understatement. Rhinos were capable of going from rocks to diamonds - or vice versa - not just from week to week, but within games.

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For the most part they were competitive, though should be the bare minimum for such a club. Leeds lost 15 of their 27 Betfred Super League fixtures and six of those defeats were by a converted try or less; until round 25, they had been beaten by more than 10 points only twice and had a positive points difference of 66.

Kruise Leeming wanted to leave so Rhinos were right to release him, but not signing a replacement was a mistake. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com.Kruise Leeming wanted to leave so Rhinos were right to release him, but not signing a replacement was a mistake. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com.
Kruise Leeming wanted to leave so Rhinos were right to release him, but not signing a replacement was a mistake. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com.

Back-to-back record losses - 50-0 at home to Wigan and 61-0 at Catalans - wrecked that and probably made the season feel even worse than it actually was.

The final game, a 46-0 home thrashing of Castleford, redressed the balance slightly and provided a little cause for optimism: David Fusitu’a hat-trick, teenage half-back Jack Sinfield’s performance and the debut of youngsters Alfie Edgell and Tom Nicholson-Watton.

But, while they remain a huge club - as evidenced by the 15,000 crowd for Tigers’ visit and Grand Final appearances for the women’s and wheelchair sides - Rhinos’ men are no longer among the big four on the field and that has to change.

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Rhinos should never have scrapped their pink away kit, seen here in a big win at Hull FC in July, 2022. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.Rhinos should never have scrapped their pink away kit, seen here in a big win at Hull FC in July, 2022. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.
Rhinos should never have scrapped their pink away kit, seen here in a big win at Hull FC in July, 2022. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.
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So (apart from axing the pink away kit, which was clearly the root of all Leeds’ problems) what went wrong? Looking from the outside, pre-season felt like a missed opportunity, with too much experimentation and trying players out of position, rather than getting ready for the real business.

Unsurprisingly, when round one came Leeds looked way off the pace in a 42-10 loss at Warrington. There needs to be more focus this time on hitting the ground running and while versatility is good, fans would prefer to see players in their specialist roles.

Recruitment has been criticised, with some justification, but it wasn’t so much the players who came in that were the problem as the ones who went out. Zak Hardaker, who played a pivotal role in Rhinos’ run to the 2022 Grand Final, was a huge loss and Tom Briscoe and Liam Sutcliffe - who could have answered Leeds’ problems in several different positions - both had big years at their new club.

There’s no point keeping unhappy players so Rhinos were right to release Kruise Leeming and Blake Austin during the season, but not bringing in replacements was a mistake and Leeds were short of numbers when injuries struck. Certainly, the number of players in recent years who have moved on before the end of their contract is alarming.

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Overall, the signings did okay. James McDonnell was an excellent addition, Nene Macdonald played well until going absent without leave late on, Justin Sangare impressed in patches and Sam Lisone became more influential throughout the campaign. There were also encouraging signs from projects Luis Roberts and Leon Ruan and Luke Hooley had some good games, though Derrell Olpherts struggled.

As coach, the buck stops with Rohan Smith and he faced a backlash from fans at games and on social media. But Smith proved last year his teams can win matches and he is still only midway through a long-term project.

It will be more like his team in 2024, so it will be fairer to judge him then and he will need to deliver. Signings so far seem promising, if not earth-shattering. Lachie Miller will add pace from full-back, Matt Frawley is an organising half and Mickael Goudemand adds depth to the pack.

Young players will benefit from their tough experience this term and there’s some exciting talent emerging at academy level, though England under-18s winger Neil Tchamambe’s departure to Hull KR was disappointing.

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Even so, more new faces are needed, at centre (assuming Macdonald doesn’t return), prop and a running half. One, or more, top-quality recruits would not only improve the squad, but also show the club has ambition. At the moment, many supporters believe the Rhinos are content with mediocrity. That’s not true, but it is the perception

If Salford Red Devils’ 2022 Man of Steel Brodie Croft is available, he’d be ideal. Rhinos pushed the boat out to sign Iestyn Harris in 1997 and something similar is needed now. Leeds spend the full salary cap, but need to do it more effectively.