LONG-SERVING FORWARD Jamie Jones-Buchanan accepts Leeds Rhinos will have to turn to some of their young rookies this year.
But the 33-year-old former England man insists the next generation of youngsters are ready to plug the gaps if injury problems strike.
Rhinos have added just one senior player – Australian pack man Adam Cuthbertson – to their squad for 2015, with experienced back Ben Jones-Bishop and props Ryan Bailey and Ian Kirke all leaving the club.
Jimmy Keinhorst, who has made 22 Super League appearances, has been promoted into Rhinos’ top-20 to replace Jones-Bishop while squad numbers 21-24 are taken by Josh Walters, Andy Yates, Elliot Minchella and Robbie Ward, who have 21 top-flight games between them.
It could be a steep learning curve, but Jones-Buchanan said he has no fears about what will happen if Leeds coach Brian McDermott is forced to dip into his reserves.
Academy players Ashton Golding and Ash Handley both impressed in Rhinos’ opening pre-season win over Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and James Duckworth, Luke Briscoe and Rob Mulhern all remain at the club despite being too old for the under-19s and not allocated a 2015 squad number.
Jones-Buchanan said: “Ash Handley was brilliant on Boxing Day and Ashton Golding was really solid and quick at the back as well. I thought all the young kids really stood up and that is a theme that Brian Mac is really into this year.
“This is a season when we need to have a really good start and if you pick up a few knocks and injuries here and there – which we did last year and I was a big part of the injured group – you need strong lads to come in, with a real mentality to work hard and perform.
“I think the last couple of months in pre-season, that is where we have been going. We’ve had some long days and every day has been really intense.
“That is all aimed at getting the young boys conditioned and ready to have that mentality to go out and perform, like they did last week.”
Jones-Buchanan, who made his debut as a 17-year-old in May, 1999, is confident Rhinos’ rookies can handle the step up to the elite level.
“This club has always put time and effort and invested well into youth,” he said. “Maybe in the last few years we’ve not had as many coming through as we need to, but certainly now there’s some real quality lads there.
“We’ve got people like Alex Foster, Thomas Minns, Jason Baldwinson, Mason Tonks and Chris Clarkson who are all out on loan, but are still part of this club and all the lads who are training with us are ready to put their hand up and come in. They have to be conditioned and ready and I thought the ones who played against Wakefield did that.”
Rhinos’ players were given time off after the Boxing Day game, but training resumes fully next week ahead of a camp in Florida.
Jones-Buchanan said the 50-28 win over Wakefield was a confidence-booster, following a poor end to last season.
“We’ve made a decent start,” he said. “Once we got the nerves out of the way and got into what we were doing, the lads were outstanding. There’s a lot of things to work on, especially decision-making defensively, but the mentality was right. I am really encouraged by the way we are going – and look at the players who didn’t play, against what was a good Wakefield side.”
Jones-Buchanan struggled with knee and shoulder problems in 2014, but said he is feeling good and pleased to get through his first hit-out with no problems.
“I feel great,” he added. “It was tough last year with a lot of injuries and I never really got into the fluidity of it. I have got to be a bit smarter managing myself – and realising I am 33 not 23 – but physically and mentally I am ready and looking ahead to the season.”