Leeds Rhinos’ team picture will look very different next year.
In the space of just five days two of Leeds’ greatest players announced they will leave at the end of the current campaign.
Trying to replace one of them would be bad enough, but both going leaves a huge gap.
Jamie Peacock had already made it clear 2015 would be his final season, though there seemed to be a widespread feeling he could be persuaded to go around again.
The shock news he is to join Hull KR for the 2016 season as football manager derails any speculation about his future and also signals the impending finish of one of the Leeds’ club’s finest associations.
As does Kevin Sinfield’s announcement he will also end his Rhinos – and rugby league – career in the autumn, to try his hand at union with sister club Yorkshire Carnegie.
Peacock and Sinfield are two of the top four players in Leeds’ history, alongside Lewis Jones and John Holmes. To have them playing in the same team has been a privilege for Rhinos – and their joint departure is a problem. Trying to replace one of them would be bad enough, but both going leaves a huge gap. Added to that is the fact four more stalwarts, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Kylie Leuluai and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, are all into their 30s and don’t have many seasons left.
However, that hasn’t exactly come as a surprise. Rhinos’ senior squad has been remarkably stable over the past decade, so inevitably the team have grown old together. Leeds’ management have been aware of and preparing for the impending transition for a while and there are indications they are actually handling it rather better than they’ve been given credit for – last Saturday’s victory over Catalans Dragons in Perpignan, for example.
Leeds’ line-up included Liam Sutcliffe, aged 20, at stand-off in place of the injured Sinfield. Brad Singleton, 22, made his first start of the season, at prop and Stevie Ward, 21, was in the second-row.
They each scored a try and all three had a big game. Despite their tender years, they are now experienced first-team players and two of them – Ward in the 2012 Grand Final and Sutcliffe off the bench at Wembley last year – have a major honour under their belt.
Leeds may yet sign a half-back, but the early indications are Sutcliffe will be given an opportunity to take over from Sinfield at stand-off.
Adam Cuthbertson, the Aussie signed in the off-season from Newcastle Knights, has effectively succeeded Leuluai as one of Leeds’ three starting props, the loose-forward position now largely having been replaced by an extra front-rower.
At least in the early part of the season, Leuluai, who is currently injured, has been coming off the bench, in a role previously occupied by the now-departed Ian Kirke.
Singleton has proven he could be another starting prop. His form this year has been explosive and he is only going to get better as he matures and gains more experience. He has great potential.
Leeds may well look to bring in another big forward – they are strongly linked with New Zealand Warriors’ Sam Rapira – but Ward looks like a natural successor to Jones-Buchanan in the second-row.
Scrum-half is still an issue, but prospect Jordan Lilley may well get an opportunity at some stage this year if he keeps performing the way he has been in the under-19s.
Leeds have also given game time this year to teenagers Ashton Golding and Ash Handley and their under-16s side includes one of the country’s most exciting young forwards, Cameron Smith. Leeds were outbid for pivot Morgan Smith, who was on their scholarship but opted to sign for Warrington Wolves instead, but seem confident Cameron (no relation to Morgan, but brother of Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Daniel) will see his future at Headingley.
If so, it will not be long before he is knocking on the first-team door.
Players like Sinfield and Peacock come along once in a generation, if that. It is impossible to replace like-for-like, but their departure is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge. Players are already putting their hand up and that is an encouraging sign.
Who will step up for Rhinos?
Gone: Ian Kirke/Ryan Bailey. Replacement: Brad Singleton.
Old guard: Danny McGuire. Possible replacement: Unknown.
Old guard: Rob Burrow. Possible replacement: Jordan Lilley.
Old guard: Kylie Leuluai. Long-term replacement: Adam Cuthbertson.
Old guard: Jamie Peacock. Possible replacement: Sam Rapira.
Old guard: Jamie Jones-Buchanan. Possible replacement: Stevie Ward.
Old guard: Kevin Sinfield. Possible replacement: Liam Sutcliffe.