GOOD NEWS has been in short supply for Leeds Rhinos this year, but they have had a positive week.
Confirmation Dave Furner will be joining the club in the close-season, on a three-year contract, removes some of the uncertainty which has surrounded Rhinos since Brian McDermott was sacked at the start of July.
Furner’s arrival will allow director of rugby Kevin Sinfield to focus on the job he signed up for, which is improving the culture and getting the playing side of things back into shape.
Recruitment is high on the priority list. Rhinos are where they are for a reason: the squad is not good enough. Injuries have played a part in the reigning champions’ spectacular decline this year and had Kallum Watkins and Mitch Garbutt in particular stayed fit Rhinos may have got into the top-eight.
But it is obvious more quality needs to be brought in. Sinfield – and now Furner – are working on that, but the rebuilding process won’t be a quick fix. It is likely to be a couple of seasons before Rhinos are strong enough to again challenge at the top of Betfred Super League.
It is doubtful there will be any spectacular, big-name signings, but that’s not necessarily what’s required.
Rhinos need solid, experienced professionals who can perform on a consistent basis, close out tight games and don’t fall apart when things go against them.
Leeds actually displayed those qualities in last Sunday’s 16-6 win at Widnes Vikings. That was arguably the club’s most important game of the Super League era, because the consequences of defeat were so severe.
There wasn’t much in it and Rhinos might have lost had Patrick Ah Van taken Krisnan Inu’s pass late on when the hosts trailed by four, but they held out with some spirited defence and punished Widnes’ missed opportunity by scoring a clinching try moments later.
It was a step forward, but Widnes are a Super League side in name only. It was their 17th successive defeat and three of those have been against Leeds.
Rhinos need solid, experienced professionals who can perform on a consistent basis, close out tight games and don’t fall apart when things go against them.Peter Smith
In fact, Widnes are the only team Rhinos have beaten in their last 15 meetings with top-flight opposition dating back to the start of March. That statistic tells its own story.
It is not done and dusted, but the most likely scenario at this stage is Salford, Hull KR and Rhinos retain their Super League status, Widnes are relegated and Toronto Wolfpack replace them.
Toronto’s existing squad is not good enough to compete week in and week out in Super League, but if they are promoted they have the resources to significantly strengthen.
Of the current 12 top-flight clubs, form suggests only Widnes have a weaker playing group than Rhinos so if Leeds are going to avoid being in a similar situation next year they will have to make effective signings.
Recruitment since 2015 has not been good enough. Sinfield is trying to address that, but he needs the club to back him, which will require a change of policy from mainly ‘project’ signings and promoting youngsters from the academy.
He is also hamstrung by the fact if players come in others will have to leave. If players are under contract, they can’t simply be discarded, they have to agree to a settlement and/or find a new club. If there is to be a clearout, the process will take time.
Furner on his own isn’t going to transform Rhinos from a side battling relegation to title contenders, but he will bring in new ideas and add structure, particularly on attack.
This column was critical earlier in the season of Super League clubs’ habit of signing assistant-coaches from the NRL whose main qualification seems to be an Australian accent. It would be hypocritical to praise Rhinos for appointing an assistant at an NRL side, but Furner is a slightly different case in that he knows the club and competition – though he has been away for 14 years – and has previously been a head coach in the Aussie competition.
His spells as an assistant since being in charge of Canberra Raiders will have made him a better coach and the time is right for him to take over his own club.
Ideally, part of Furner’s remit will be to prepare his assistants, Rob Burrow and Chev Walker, for head coaching roles in the future.