Peter Smith: Sinfield is charged with turning ugly duckling into graceful swan

Gary Hetherington with Kevin Sinfield.
Gary Hetherington with Kevin Sinfield.
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WHEN HE was unveiled as Leeds Rhinos’ director of rugby six days ago, Kevin Sinfield admitted he didn’t expect his new career to be “all beautiful along the way”.

He probably wasn’t anticipating such an ugly start. There was a feeling of renewed optimism ahead of Rhinos’ derby at Castleford Tigers, but the 42-10 thrashing was a reality check, for Leeds’ supporters as much as the new backroom team.

Brian McDermott.

Brian McDermott.

After a reasonably positive opening, Leeds crumbled and it was a familiar story, a series of errors taking the pressure off Tigers and heaping it on to Rhinos. They defended bravely for half the game, but were worn down after the break and well beaten in the end.

The margin could have been even worse had Tigers taken all their chances. It was another grim 80 minutes for the 2017 champions who have now lost eight successive league games.

After eight seasons under Brian McDermott, a change was due, though it is sad such a successful coach didn’t leave on his own terms. His shock mid-season sacking meant Sinfield and new first-team coach James Lowes came in with Rhinos in Betfred Super League’s bottom four and only four games left to secure a place in the Super-8s and avoid a relegation battle in the Qualifiers.

There is no quick fix. The new management may be able to effect some positive changes, to culture and morale for example, but the only certain way of getting better results is by employing better players.

The bottom line is, Rhinos will only improve enough to challenge for the title next year if they improve the squad.

Peter Smith

At Sinfield’s media conference last week chief executive Gary Hetherington made it clear he believes the current squad is good enough to get out of this crisis.

He pointed out it is basically the same group of players who finished second last year and beat league leaders Castleford in the Grand Final.

However, Danny McGuire – Leeds’ most influential player over the second half of the 2017 season and man of the match in the title decider – is no longer at the club and, on top of that, other teams have strengthened while Rhinos haven’t.

Rhinos brought in three players over the close season. Richie Myler is doing a decent job in tough circumstances, but Brad Dwyer has featured only sparingly and Nathaniel Peteru is recovering from his second long-term injury.

James Lowes.

James Lowes.

Rivals who didn’t particularly boost their squad last autumn have done so during the current campaign.

Forward Joe Greenwood joined Wigan from Gold Coast Titans recently and Tigers have added outstanding front-rower Liam Watts from Hull and full-back Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e who has made a positive impact after stepping up from the Betfred Championship.

Leeds didn’t replace Keith Galloway after he returned to Australia, though teenager Mikolaj Oledzki has emerged as a hugely promising long-term prospect in the front-row and key players, including Ryan Hall and Joel Moon, are out of contract at the end of the season and look likely to leave. If they can find the right player or players before the transfer deadline on July 27 Rhinos will do so, but it is late in the day and Sinfield, now in charge of recruitment, is behind the eight-ball from the start.

Recent recruitment has been poor. Sinfield can change that, but he needs the club to back him.

Stand-off Tui Lolohea, joining next season from West Tigers, is a good start. Sinfield is an excellent appointment and back where he belongs. He knows the club, is loved by the fans and admired throughout the sport.

He is a proven winner and an inspirational leader with an outstanding rugby brain. This role, running all aspects of the rugby department, is ideal for him and he’ll make it work, if given a fighting chance.

With Sinfield handling matters away from the training ground, Lowes can concentrate on coaching and that could prove a winning formula.

Should Rhinos claw their way into the Super-8s, then Sinfield and Lowes will have seven games under no pressure to add some structure and put things into place for next year.

But the bottom line is, Rhinos will only improve enough to challenge for the title next year if they improve the squad.

The league table does not lie. As much as there was a need for a new style of play and a change of ideas, the fate of coaches and managers is determined by the players they have to work with.