There seems to be a strong opinion amongst some Leeds Rhinos fans that coaches Brian McDermott and James Lowes have had their chance and now it is time for a change.
Though Rhinos produced arguably their best performance of the season last weekend – when they thrashed Hull KR 44-14 in farcical conditions – the Rhinos faithful have yet to warm to the current coaching team.
Leeds’ inconsistent form and poor performances against top-four sides is at the heart of that, along with concern over team selection – such as the recent omission of Chris Clarkson and Luke Burgess and the decision to bench Rob Burrow against Warrington Wolves last month.
There has even been anger over McDermott’s refusal to criticise referee James Child following that particular defeat, something the critics claim highlights a lack of passion from Rhinos’ head coach.
However, anyone hoping to see a new coaching team in place this season will almost certainly be disappointed.
McDermott isn’t the resigning type and chief executive Gary Hetherington – who is in charge of hiring and firing – has no track record of sacking coaches.
Since Hetherington took over the day-to-day running of the club, at the end of the 1996 season, only one head coach has been dismissed – Dean Lance a decade ago.
Lance made a poor start, a long run of victories turned things around – but masked a series of problems – and he departed early in his second campaign.
Since then, coaches have come and gone, but in each case it has been, to a large extent, on his own terms and on a couple of occasions to take up a new role within the Leeds Rugby organisation.
Dean Bell became head of youth; Graham Murray left for a job in Australia’s NRL; Daryl Powell took what was supposed to be a two-year sabbatical and became involved with the Leeds Tykes rugby union side; Tony Smith went to the RFL and Brian McClennan returned to his native New Zealand.
In at least some cases, there may have been an element of go or be pushed, but heads could be held high all round.
Hetherington has already said that he is confident Rhinos have the right coaching team to take the club forward and he tends to stick to his guns, so the advice to anyone expecting an immediate change is, don’t hold your breath!
It will be a major surprise if McDermott and Lowes are not still in place at the end of this season and, in the view of this reporter, staying loyal to the current coaching team is the right approach for a number of reasons.
1: It is too soon to make a change. McDermott has been in charge for only 17 league matches, of which Rhinos have won nine, in a fiercely-competitive division.
Leeds have under-performed for most of the season so far, but the situation isn’t as dire as some fans seem to believe.
McDermott warned in pre-season that it would take time to get his views across and that it would be summer before Rhinos were playing to their potential.
He got the job unexpectedly a year earlier than planned, the bad weather caused major disruption at a crucial time when changes were being put in place and time was lost appointing a backroom staff.
Summer is here (allegedly) and Rhinos aren’t yet on song, but – with no danger of relegation or a licence not being granted – a mid-season change would achieve very little and the last eight months would have been wasted.
A new coach can often have an immediate effect on a team which is doing reasonably well, but not achieving its potential.
But it is harder to turn around a team which is in decline, though transition may be a fairer word to describe Rhinos’ current situation.
With the three-time title-winning team beginning to grow old and break up, any incoming coach would have major problems to overcome.
Rhinos will still, probably, qualify for the play-offs and are in the quarter-finals of the Carnegie Challenge Cup, a competition they are capable of winning.
McDermott remains confident that he can turn things around, he is taking a long-term view and he is prepared to stick to his guns – all good qualities in a coach.
2: McDermott had a full pre-season with Rhinos, but he inherited someone else’s team, with signings agreed and contract extensions sealed before he took over.
Rhinos are going through the recruitment and retention process now, those decisions are presumably McDermott’s and he will have to accept the consequences – or the plaudits.
He should only be judged when he has been in charge of his own side.
3: The players are still behind their coach. Both on and off the record, the playing staff believe McDermott is the man for the job and they accept responsibility for the team’s poor form.
That hasn’t always been the case in the past, but in the dressing room there is no desire for a change. Players aren’t necessarily the right people to make this sort of decision, but their views should be taken into account.
McDermott has adapted his game plan since the early part of the campaign, when Rhinos were throwing the ball around with wild abandon.
It isn’t the coach who is dropping the ball, passing to the opposition or missing tackles. Rhinos are playing well for parts of matches – so some things are working – but they are unable to sustain it against top opposition. That’s more of a player issue than a coaching one.
4: The injury problems Rhinos suffered at the start of the season are still taking their toll.
Some of the young players have had more game time than was planned and are feeling the pace.
The loss of Keith Senior’s experience – on and off the field – has been costly and two of the country’s brightest young talents, Ben Jones-Bishop and Kallum Watkins, remain on the casualty list.
Rhinos are now getting bodies back, but they are still struggling to develop combinations and some players are not yet match fit.
The inspirational effect that Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock had when they returned to the team has worn off and both players need more games under their belt before they will be firing on all cylinders.
Kevin Sinfield has had a remarkable season, virtually carrying the team single-handed at times. But he is looking weary and needs more support.
5: There’s no obvious replacement for McDermott immediately available. The top coaches in this country either have another job lined up (Michael Maguire), are under contract (Nathan Brown) or have already had a spell at Leeds (Tony Smith).
An NRL coach or assistant may be an option, but then visa and work permit issues have to be considered and at best it would be another month before the new man could arrive, which would be too late.
6: Young British coaches need support and encouragement. McDermott is committed to the development of his club and the sport in general and invests a large amount of time in the local youth and amateur scene.
That is vital for Rhinos’ long-term future.