IT’S ALL about the half-backs for Leeds Rhinos.
The lack of a settled combination at stand-off and scrum-half undermined Rhinos’ 2021 campaign from early in pre-season and is a reason why the two hookers – Brad Dwyer and Kruise Leeming, with only 12 and 10 respectively – were their top try scorers.
In the circumstances, Rhinos did well to finish fifth and get to within one game of the Grand Final and the half-back issue has since been addressed by two high-profile signings.
Austin was Super League’s most prestigious addition when he joined Warrington Wolves from Canberra Raiders ahead of the 2019 season.
He was one of the top players in the competition that year, but struggled to recapture his form during his remaining two seasons with the Wire.
A Great Britain winger – bizarrely – three years ago, he is a running half-back, who can also kick the ball and is a drop-goal specialist.
Sezer also had an outstanding debut campaign in England, with Huddersfield Giants, but was hampered by injury last year. He is the organiser, also has a pin-point kicking game and, significantly, has played alongside Austin in the past, at Canberra. Sezer steered Raiders to the NRL Grand Final in 2019 and is, by any standards, a big signing.
The original plan was for Austin to give Rhinos more depth across pivotal positions, including full-back, centre and loose-forward, but Luke Gale’s departure to Hull scuppered that and Leeds will be back to square one if either he or Sezer has a long lay-off.
But there is some experienced cover – in Kruise Leeming, Liam Sutcliffe and Richie Myler – and the depth of the squad means any of those could switch into the halves without weakening the side elsewhere.
Halves can only do their thing behind a strong pack and Rhinos have got one of those.
The front-row of Matt Prior and Mikolaj Oledzki, either side of Leeming, is one of the best in the competition and Leeds’ squad is brimming with quality second-rowers.
Another big name to play in the middle would not go amiss, but James Donaldson and Bodene Thompson can step in and Zane Tetevano, though he plays at loose-forward, is effectively a prop, so they should cope.
If the forwards create space for the halves to work behind, Rhinos’ three-quarters will get a lot more opportunities than they did last year and all of them are good enough to make any ball they get count.
Tonga Test winger David Fusitu’a could be one of the signings of the season – safe under high kicks, a big hitter and outstanding finisher, who carries the ball like a prop.
The prospect of Fusitu’a playing outside centre Harry Newman is an exciting one and Ash Handley, on the other side, was the competition’s top try scorer two years ago.
Leeds’ youngsters are ready to cash in on the experience gained in tough circumstances during 2020 and 21 and it looks a strong, well-balanced squad, with a good blend of youth and experience.
A shake-up behind the scenes and new approach to training, under performance director Richard Hunwicks, appears to be paying off and, if Leeds can keep their key players fit and on the field – they certainly need to cut down on sin-binnings – there’s no reason why they won’t be semi-finalists, at least, this year.