Leeds Rhinos 2017 Super League review: Mastering the art of play-offs rugby

Changing of the guard: Departing Danny McGuire celebrates his second Grand Final try with teen talent Jack Walker. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
Changing of the guard: Departing Danny McGuire celebrates his second Grand Final try with teen talent Jack Walker. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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THE OTHER day this writer received an email from a Leeds Rhinos supporter enthusing about their Grand Final victory – and questioning whether he should bother renewing his season ticket next year.

He was seriously considering watching Batley, Dewsbury or Hunslet in the lower divisions until next September, then getting back on board with Rhinos for the play-offs.

Player of the year, centre-turned-stand-off Joel Moon. PIC: Varleys

Player of the year, centre-turned-stand-off Joel Moon. PIC: Varleys

To an extent, it is a fair point. Under coach Brian McDermott Rhinos’ record in the league is quite ordinary (fifth, fifth, third, sixth, first, ninth, second).

But in the same time they have reached and won four Grand Finals, lifted the Challenge Cup twice and been Wembley runners-up on another couple of occasions.

Rhinos’ record in big games under McDermott is unrivaled, but season tickets aren’t valid for Cup ties and play-offs.

Leeds finished second this year without anybody getting particularly excited about their form.

Grand Final specialists, Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott and long-serving duo Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire. PIC: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

Grand Final specialists, Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott and long-serving duo Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire. PIC: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

Had teams started on zero points in the Super-8s, Leeds would have finished top on points difference from Castleford Tigers, the team they went on to defeat at Old Trafford.

Both teams won five and lost two of their seven additional fixtures. They each scored 196 in the Super-8s, but Leeds conceded 12 fewer – 146 points to Castleford’s 158.

Even so, Rhinos only really stepped up from half-time of their defeat at the Jungle a month before the Grand Final. That was a clear turning point in the season.

Trailing 30-6 – and on course for a repeat of the record 66-10 drubbing they suffered on the same ground in March – Rhinos ‘won’ the second half 18-8 and were the best team in the competition from that point onwards.

Leeds were underdogs in the final against a team who had beaten them four times earlier in the campaign, but McDermott – yet again – came up with a perfect game plan and Rhinos produced a masterclass in how to win a big match.

So, a year after surviving the very real threat of relegation – Leeds were bottom of the table for nine weeks in 2016 – Rhinos are once again champions.

It was an astonishing turnaround, especially considering their disappointing start to the year, leading to chief executive Gary Hetherington’s infamous open letter to fans which seemed to give McDermott a month to save his job.

Leeds were the second-best team over the campaign as a whole, but there was nobody better when it really mattered.

Frustrating it may be, but Rhinos are masters of rugby league’s play-offs format. Under first past the post presumably they would adopt a different mindset, but at the moment it is all about peaking at the right time and they did that, yet again.

With just one major addition to the senior squad, Leeds’ total of 40 points was only one fewer than when they won the treble in 2015. They surprised everyone outside their camp – though from the start there was a belief internally they could get back among the silverware this year.

The club’s decision to keep faith with McDermott and his players was justified and second place on the table and victory in the title decider proved that what were regarded as excuses last year – injuries and the loss of Rhinos’ training base in the Boxing Day floods – were in fact reasons.

Hooker Matt Parcell wasn’t in Rhinos plans midway through pre-season, but – after being snapped up from Manly Sea Eagles as a late-notice replacement for James Segeyaro – proved to be one of Super League 2017’s most influential players.

Some Australians are naturally suited to the European game and he is one of them.

A runner out of acting-half, his pace got Leeds on the front foot and he contributed 19 tries, which is the most by a Leeds forward in the summer era.

Parcell’s combination with Adam Cuthbertson, who had a smile back on his face after a difficult season last year, was particularly effective.

Joel Moon’s switch from centre to stand-off also proved to be a masterstroke.

He may not be the classic creative stand-off, but Moon saw more of the ball in the pivotal role and his running near the line was a constant threat to opposition defences.

It took Leeds a while to settle on a replacement in the left centre, but Liam Sutcliffe had a run there towards the end of the campaign and looked at home.

Next year Jamie Jones-Buchanan will be the last man standing from Rhinos’ first Grand Final win in 2004. As with club legends Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai two years ago, Rhinos sent Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow out on the best possible note. Burrow didn’t get the game time he deserved – the low point being when he was left on the bench and denied a final appearance in front of the South Stand against St Helens in August – but he is quitting at the top.

He could certainly play on for another year, but will be a huge asset to the club in his new role as academy coach.

McGuire had a tough time after taking over as captain and key playmaker from Sinfield at the end of 2016, but had an excellent season and was the stand-out performer in the Super-8s and play-offs.

It is tough to imagine him playing against Rhinos next year, but he – like Burrow – will be remembered as one of the club’s all-time greats and Hull KR are getting a very good player, in top form.

Brad Dwyer and Richie Myler have big boots to fill, but both are good players with a point to prove and reports from Australia suggest New Zealand-born forward Nathaniel Peteru could prove an excellent addition to Rhinos’ pack.

Like the halves, Leeds’ forwards have come under fire since the end of 2015, but the Grand Final – when they totally dominated – showed what they are capable of.

Mitch Garbutt went well whenever he played and in the final couple of games Brad Singleton produced the sort of form which – if maintained – will earn him England honours before too long.

Anthony Mullally was another star, scoring some important tries and running strongly off the bench. The most exciting aspect of the season was the emergence of full-back Jack Walker who, at just 18, has the world at his feet.

His battle with Ashton Golding for the No1 role next year will be a fascinating subplot in what is set to be another intriguing year for Rhinos.

Leeds Rhinos 2017

Super League: Second

Played 23, won 15, lost 8, drew 0. Scored 553, conceded 477. Points 30.

Super-8s: Second.

Played 30, won 20, lost 10, drew 0. Scored 749, conceded 623. Points 40.

Grand Final: Winners.

Challenge Cup: Semi-final

YEP player of the year: Matt Parcell

Best moment: The Grand Final win over Castleford Tigers.

Low point: Being embarrassed 66-10 by Tigers at the Jungle in March.

Leeds Rhinos' Ash Handley. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

New year brings new hope at Leeds Rhinos for Handley