Leeds Rhinos: Variety’s proving the spice of life for forward Jarrod O’Connor

IT’S NOT just the Scout movement that has to Be Prepared - the same applies to a rugby league team’s 18th man.

By Peter Smith
Tuesday, 14th June 2022, 4:45 pm

Rhinos forward Jarrod O’Connor was not due to play in last Friday’s Betfred Super League game at Huddersfield Giants but, unexpectedly, found himself in the starting line-up, out of position at hooker, after captain Kruise Leeming was ruled out through illness shortly before kick-off.

Coaches are now required to name an initial 21-man squad two days ahead of a game and the non-playing reserve usually warms up with the team before kick-off, so O’Connor was on standby.

“I knew I was playing about two or three hours before we were due to meet,” he said.

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Back-row Leeds Rhinos forward Jarrod O'Connor stepped up from 18th man to fill in at hooker against Huddersfield Giants last time out in Super League. Picture: John Rushworth/SWpix.com.

“Kruise called in ill, but I was already 18th man and I was preparing as if I was playing, so it wasn’t a big adjustment.

“I was all ready to go.”

O’Connor admitted: “It’s not something you get used to.

“When everyone was training [the day before the game] you think that’s the squad, but it didn’t matter in the end, I was told I was playing and I was ready.

Leeds Rhinos head coach Rohan Smith likes players to be versatile and to be able to adapt their game. Picture: John Clifton/SWpix.com.

“If you’re the 18th man, you are always ready to go. That’s how they tell you to prepare because, obviously, anything can go wrong in the warm-up.”

Even if O’Connor had been in the 17, it wouldn’t have been as a hooker.

But he has filled in there in the past, including on debut two years ago, and said: “I didn’t expect to start there, but it was a good experience.

“It’s somewhere I want to get better at playing, obviously, to have more chance of getting in the team. Any experience I can get playing there, I am going to take with both hands and just do my best.”

Leeds Rhinos' regular hooker Brad Dwyer who shared the role with stand-in Jarrod O'Connor against Huddersfield after usual partner, club captain Kruise Leeming, withdrew through illness. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

O’Connor believes his future is at loose-forward, but coach Rohan Smith has made it clear he likes players who can fill more than one position.

“It’s another point I can have to get in the team,” O’Connor stressed.

“If there’s a hooker down or whatever, it is another reason why Rohan can play me. That’s what I want to do, I want to add some versatility and play as much as I can.”

The 20-year-old played the first 30 minutes and last 10, with Brad Dwyer taking over in between those spells.

“I thought it went all right,” he said of his 40 minutes on the field.

“There were points when I think I got a bit lost because there was no dominant call, but that’s something we can work on.

“We have got this weekend [without a fixture] and it’s something we can build on towards the St Helens game.”

O’Connor, who recently signed a new contract keeping him at Leeds until the end of 2025, has played in 10 of their 16 games so far.

“I am really enjoying it,” he said. “We are getting more together every week, I think. There were points [last Friday] when we could have lost our heads, but we all stayed together, even though the scoreline wasn’t in our favour.

“I thought the way we stuck together and kept playing towards the end showed we are progressing in the right direction.

“I know there’s a lot to build on but we’ve got no game this week and, obviously, we can work on it.”