THREE YEARS ago, when they were struggling at the bottom of the table, Leeds Rhinos pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the form of Papua New Guinea hooker James Segeyaro.
Signed on a short-term deal from Penrith Panthers, Segeyaro scored six tries in 10 appearances and his arrival was a big factor in Rhinos turning their season around and securing Super League safety.
There was a similar situation back in 1996 when veteran forward David Hulme was brought in from Widnes. He played only nine times for Leeds, but his toughness and experience proved vital in a battle against the drop.
Set to go second from bottom in Betfred Super League after London Broncos play Hull KR tonight – or bottom if it’s a draw – Leeds are in desperate need of a bit of magic now.
What they can conjure up before the Super League transfer deadline, in August, could decide their future in the top flight, but match-winning rugby players are in short supply. What Leeds desperately need is an organiser and playmaker with an attacking kicking game. That was highlighted during the 23-14 loss to Wigan Warriors six days ago. They were the better team for much of it and their defence was more solid than it has been for most of this year but when they built pressure they did not make it count.
Rhinos did create chances and in a non-televised game they might have won, referee Chris Kendall indicating a try to Trent Merrin in the final 10 minutes, before being overruled by video assistant Ben Thaler.
But their kicks near the line were poor and they took too many wrong options. Contrast that with Salford Red Devils’ performance in their win over Wakefield Trinity two days later.
Salford are sixth in the table, though only four points ahead of Rhinos. Man for man, Leeds are a better team, but what the Red Devils have is two match-winners in the halves.
Stand-off Robert Lui and scrum-half Jackson Hastings were the difference between Salford and Trinity last weekend. They can both create tries with kicks, they attack the line and inspire players around them.
Rhinos haven’t had a settled stand-off since Danny McGuire left to join Hull KR following a man-of-the-match performance to win the 2017 Grand Final. This year Tui Lolohea, Cameron Smith, Callum McLelland and Liam Sutcliffe – the ultimate utility player – have all had a go and Joel Moon operated there for much of last season.
With a settled, high-quality combination at six and seven Rhinos could well be where Salford are on the table, not in their current plight.
The rugby department is aware of that and efforts are being made to bring in fresh blood, but they don’t control the purse strings and recruitment is easier said than done, particularly in mid-season. First, they need to find the right player and then for him to be available. That means either picking up somebody who is out of favour at his current club, owing to form or other reasons and, either way, it is a gamble taking advantage of another team’s financial plight or being prepared to spend big money.
Rhinos might survive without bringing in a play-maker. They are playing more as a team now under interim-coach Richard Agar, their defence seems to be improving and seven of their final 11 games are at Emerald Headingley. It is in their own hands but going with what they have would be leaving things to chance and hope. The alternative is to be proactive and bring in somebody who will make a definite difference, like Segeyaro did.
That may mean spending a transfer fee, but however much that costs, relegation would be even more expensive. With Kallum Watkins being released at the end of this month there is money available under the salary cap, but the congested nature of the Super League table doesn’t help. Leeds are keen on Hastings for 2020, though they face strong competition from Wigan. Hastings’ contract ends this autumn and he will become a free agent.
In that case, Salford might be tempted by a transfer fee, knowing he is likely to leave for nothing in October.
But, despite their current lofty position, Salford aren’t safe from the drop yet and they particularly won’t want to lose their star asset to one of the teams below them. The same applies to Lui who is also in the final months of his contract.
Leeds could look down the NRL route, but in that case an overseas player may need to move on – which might be why hooker Matt Parcell is being linked strongly with Hull KR.
Rhinos are famously cautious with their spending, preferring to bring through their own academy products. There is talent waiting in the wings, but that is for the long term.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and Rhinos are now in a situation where they need to speculate to accumulate.
And a big-name signing would also show the fans they recognise the situation and are tackling it.