Leeds Rhinos: Leeds must do better in the league – Smith

Leeds Rhinos players celebrate in the dressing room after their Challenge Cup triumph.
Leeds Rhinos players celebrate in the dressing room after their Challenge Cup triumph.
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BRIAN MCDERMOTT is now Leeds Rhinos’ longest-serving Super League coach.

Sunday’s First Utility Super League opener at Hull KR will mark the start of the former Royal Marine and professional heavyweight boxer’s fifth season in charge at Headingley Carnegie.

Dean Bell did two terms in the hot seat at the start of Super League, followed by Graham Murray (two seasons), Dean Lance (one and a half), Daryl Powell (two and a half), Tony Smith (four) and Brian McClennan (three).

The Challenge Cup victory last year cemented McDermott’s status as the most successful team boss in the club’s history, completing the set of available major trophies after he had also masterminded two Super League triumphs and a World Club Challenge success, but the one thing Rhinos have lacked during his spell in charge is what will be most important this year – consistency.

Rhinos famously won the Grand Final after finishing fifth in the table in both 2011 and 2012. They climbed to third in 2013, but last year was their poorest league finish since 1996, McDermott’s men limping home in sixth spot and falling at the first hurdle in the play-offs.

There were mitigating circumstances. Rhinos were focused on the Challenge Cup last year and winning that made it a successful season. Leeds played outstanding rugby in the first half of the season, before Cup fever took hold and were still in with a shout of at least second spot in the table until the final few weeks of the campaign.

Had they lost at home to St Helens in the fifth round of the Challenge Cup – in April, when they were top of the table – maybe Rhinos would have gone on to finish as league leaders and win the Grand Final.

That said, Rhinos’ league form over the second half of the campaign was woeful. After winning 11 of their opening 14 league matches – with two narrow defeats and a draw – Leeds were victorious in just four of their final 13. Over the course of a full season, that would be relegation form. Leeds lost their last five games in the regular rounds, plus an elimination play-off and haven’t won a Super League fixture since July.

They weren’t far off in any of the matches they lost. Only two of Rhinos’ 11 defeats in all competitions last year were by more than a converted score, but clearly they must improve this season and to a significant degree, as the new structure means there is much less margin for error.

This year the 24 Super League and Kingstone Press Championship teams will be split into three new groups of eight after 23 weekly rounds, that is home and away against all rival sides, plus a Magic Weekend fixture.

The top-eight in Super League will play seven more fixtures, with the leading four after those matches going into knockout semi-finals for a place at Old Trafford: First versus fourth and second at home to third. The bottom-four will face the Championship’s best for places in Super League 2016.

The top four at the time of the split will get four home games and points will be carried over from the opening 23 rounds, so realistically, the Grand Finalists are likely to come from that leading quartet. McDermott has proved he can motivate Rhinos for one-off or knockout games, but this year every game is going to matter. The big question is, can the coach inspire the sort of consistency Rhinos have lacked since they finished top of the table under McClennan in 2009?

Time will tell, but the scrap for places at the top of the table will be tougher than ever this term.

There was little between the sides last season and while some of their rivals have strengthened, Rhinos are going around again with a similar roster to last year.

It would be hard to argue that Leeds’ squad now is better or deeper than it was 12 months ago.

Aussie forward Adam Cuthbertson has come in and has the makings of a very good signing.

His offloading ability will suit the English game and should make him a fans’ favourite, but he is Rhinos’ only new face.

Full-back/winger Ben Jones-Bishop, props Ian Kirke and Ryan Bailey and second-row Chris Clarkson – who is on a year’s loan at Widnes Vikings – have all left the club and while they may not have been first-choice this year, they are all experienced players who could have stepped in and done a job.

Leeds’ first 17 is strong, but should injuries strike – which they have on a regular basis over recent seasons – then McDermott will have to dip into a pool of talented, but largely untested reserves.

A nightmare scenario would be the loss of vastly experienced props Kylie Leuluai and Jamie Peacock. That would leave Rhinos relying on Cuthbertson, 23-year-old Brad Singleton and Andy Yates, who has never played a Super League game, to power the team’s engine room, without experienced support.

Rhinos should be applauded for their policy of promoting young players. That is what underpinned the decade of success which began in 2004.

But academy products then were supplemented by outstanding recruits – the likes of Ali Lauitiiti, Peacock, Leuluai and Brent Webb.

That hasn’t happened this year, to the dismay of many fans who want to see new faces brought into the club.

Leeds do have some very talented youngsters coming through. Ashton Golding has come on in leaps and bounds during pre-season and Ash Handley’s four tries on Boxing Day illustrated his potential.

But most of the best youngsters are backs, in positions where Rhinos are strong and have relatively young players already signed up to long-term contracts.

Rhinos shouldn’t and won’t be written off this year, but by opting to bring in only one signing the management have taken a major gamble. It is going to be fascinating to see how it pans out over the next nine months. Logic suggests retaining the Challenge Cup is Leeds’ best bet for silverware this year, but Rhinos have defied logic a number of times under McDermott and after the disappointing end to last year they are highly motivated.

The signs from pre-season games suggest Leeds will adopt a more expansive style this term and giving the competition’s best outside-backs a great amount of ball will boost what was at times last year a faltering attack. If they can pull that off and maintain 2014’s miserly defence, a top-four spot at least is within their grasp – and then Rhinos will come into their own.