Peter Smith: Quality signings key to Leeds Rhinos’ return as top-table challengers

Leeds Rhinos' director of rugby Kevin Sinfield.
Leeds Rhinos' director of rugby Kevin Sinfield.
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A YEAR ago Leeds Rhinos were three days away from another Grand Final appearance.

Since then not only have the wheels come off, but the engine and doors as well and the entire winning machine has been scrapped, melted down and recycled as paperweights and door stops.

There may have been steeper and more spectacular declines over the course of 12 months, but it’s hard to think of any to match Rhinos going from winning at Old Trafford to losing a home game against Toronto Wolfpack. Looking at the big picture, last Friday’s loss didn’t mean a great deal. They had already done enough, just, to avoid the Million Pound Game and secure their Betfred Super League status for 2019. But it was a truly dismal way to finish what has been possibly the poorest season in the club’s history. There have been Leeds teams with worse players, but not many that have underperformed so consistently for such a long period. Unlike two years ago, Rhinos started reasonably well. In the opening six weeks of the season they won at Warrington Wolves and St Helens, who meet in a play-off semi-final tonight, but the one-point loss to Wigan Warriors in April, after they had dominated for 70 minutes, was a turning point.

After that Rhinos won only twice in Super League and lost 13 of their final 18 games against top-flight opposition in all competitions. That is relegation form and Rhinos are fortunate not to be preparing for a one-off fight for survival this weekend. They could have slipped up against Widnes Vikings in the Qualifiers and key decisions went their way at the end of the win over Salford Red Devils. It was far too close for comfort.

Looking back, the loss of captain Kallum Watkins to a season-ending knee injury in May was a huge moment. Mitch Garbutt’s knee problems, which restricted him to only nine appearances, were another big factor.

Rhinos missed Garbutt’s go-forward and his absence had a knock-on effect on other key players, particularly Matt Parcell and Adam Cuthbertson who were unable to play their natural game. Not replacing the departed Keith Galloway was a mistake and injuries had a major bearing. Mikolaj Oledzki and Cameron Smith will both benefit from much more game time than was expected at the start of the year, but too often players who came in did not step up.

Gary Hetherington meets the media following the sacking of Brian McDermott.

Gary Hetherington meets the media following the sacking of Brian McDermott.

Rhinos lacked leadership and game management. Five one-point defeats tells its own story and Leeds lost a host of games after leading late on.

Chief executive Gary Hetherington admitted at the time the decision to sack coach Brian McDermott was a gamble.

Rhinos were no worse from that point, but they didn’t improve. Fresh ideas were needed after seven full seasons under one coach, but, in hindsight, an amicable parting at the end of the season would have been better for all concerned and more respectful to McDermott. The regime change was also tough on Kevin Sinfield and James Lowes who effectively took caretaker charge. It did allow Sinfield, brought in as director of rugby, to assess the situation, but he was left copping the flak for a hole he hadn’t dug in a role he doesn’t want.

The problems aren’t difficult to identify. Sinfield has spoken of the culture which has made Leeds so successful being lost and the transition from the golden generation has been handled poorly.

In hindsight, an amicable parting at the end of the season would have been better for all concerned and more respectful to Brian McDermott.

Peter Smith

Players like Sinfield, Jamie Peacock, Kylie Leuluai, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow were irreplaceable, but recruitment since 2015 hasn’t been good enough.

The policy of project signings and bringing through players from the academy has run its course. Now is the time to add some genuine quality and, ideally, a couple of star names. Sinfield is working on that, but recruitment is dependent on moving other players out and that is difficult if they are under contract.

Tui Lolohea and Callum McLelland are good additions and Dave Furner is an excellent appointment as coach. His arrival will free Sinfield to do the role he returned to the club for, but the next few weeks are vital. Furner will steady the ship, but without more quality in the squad Rhinos will struggle again next year. Even with key additions it might be a season or two before Leeds are ready to challenge at the top end of the table.

The injury loss of captain Kallum Watkins so early in the season was a major blow to Leeds Rhinos. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

The injury loss of captain Kallum Watkins so early in the season was a major blow to Leeds Rhinos. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.