SUPPORTERS and the team themselves appear divided over how Leeds Rhinos will fare this year.
If social media, including messages to this newspaper, is any guide, the mood among Rhinos’ fans is one of pessimism.
In contrast, there are positive noises – and admittedly it would be a major concern if there weren’t – coming out of the camp itself.
Rhinos are certainly taking a gamble. Last year was the club’s worst for 20 years, but rather than making wholesale changes, Leeds will go into 2017 with virtually the same squad and coaching staff.
Ignoring 1996, when the club was in turmoil, the last time Leeds flirted with relegation was in 1986-87 when four teams went down and Leeds finished fifth from bottom – above Oldham only on points difference. The following season Leeds’ management splashed out record fees on Garry Schofield and Lee Crooks, saying openly “we are not going to be in that position ever again”.
The approach three decades on is different. Brian McDermott’s position as coach seems to have never been in doubt and Leeds have made only three signings. Two of those – half-back Cory Aston and prop Jack Ormondroyd – have come from the Kingstone Press Championship and are in the ‘project’ bracket.
The other move into the transfer market was forced upon Rhinos when James Segeyaro, whose arrival last year went a long way towards saving them from the million pound game, walked out on his contract.
That left Rhinos in a difficult situation, looking for a player to fill a key position at a time – in December – when most of a suitable standard had already been snapped up.
Under the circumstances they did remarkably well to bring in Matt Parcell from Manly Sea Eagles.
The early evidence is Parcell has the sort of game which will suit Rhinos and be effective in Super League. He hasn’t played against top-flight opposition yet, but looked good in two trial matches against Championship teams and will surely improve as he gels with his team-mates and conditions improve.
Rhinos have come through pre-season in decent shape, with most of their senior squad fit and a couple of steady, if unspectacular, performances under their belt.
Defensively, against Hull KR and Featherstone Rovers, Leeds were solid, conceding only one try.
That’s a good starting point, but they need to improve significantly with the ball. Half-back remains the area of most concern.
The one player Leeds could not afford to be without last year, captain and pivot Danny McGuire, was injured half an hour into their opening game and it took them a long time to recover.
McGuire only played 13 times in 2016 and was a huge loss. The fact he got injured again in his only pre-season match is a concern, but if he can put that behind him McGuire still has a great deal to offer.
He was outstanding in 2015, when Rhinos did the treble and a couple of long spells on the sidelines mean even at 34 he still has gas in the tank.
Leeds need McGuire fit and in form if they are going to climb the ladder this season. The outlook would have been brighter had they signed an experienced half to support their captain and fellow veteran Rob Burrow.
The decision to loan Jordan Lilley – who made 23 appearances last year and was one of their few success stories – to Bradford Bulls at a time when McGuire was on the casualty list is a strange one.
Rhinos are putting a lot of faith in Liam Sutcliffe, who spent the second half of last term gaining experience at full-back and did a fine job.
Leeds have dangerous outside-backs, but they are only a threat if the ball gets to them. That didn’t happen nearly enough last year and strike weapons such as Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins were badly underused.
Leeds are going with a rookie at full-back this year, but Ashton Golding has huge potential and could be a breakthrough star if he stays fit and fulfills his undoubted potential.
Up front, Stevie Ward’s return after missing all bar the final four games of last year is a big plus and will be like bringing in a new player.
It is important he and Brett Ferres get and stay fit, but if they do Rhinos’ pack looks in reasonable shape, even without long-term casualty Keith Galloway.
Adam Cuthbertson’s form dropped off last year, but if he regains his 2015 performance levels he can be devastating and there have been good signs in pre-season from Anthony Mullally, Matt Garbutt and Ormondroyd, while at 24 and with more than 100 senior games to his name, Brad Singleton should be coming into his own as a Super League front-rower.
It was very early in pre-season, but a fringe Leeds side were taken to the cleaners by Wakefield Trinity on Boxing Day and question marks remain over squad depth and whether there is anybody in the academy ready to push through.
So are the fans right to be pessimistic, or is the players’ optimism justified? The answer is probably somewhere in between – Rhinos are likely to improve on last year, but probably not enough to force their way back into the top-four.