IT IS not often a team battling against relegation releases its captain two-thirds of the way through the season.
But Leeds Rhinos rarely do things the conventional way and that is the situation they find themselves in as they prepare to bid farewell to Kallum Watkins.
Though born in Manchester, Watkins is an adopted Yorkshireman having played his entire professional career to date at Leeds.
Some players have obvious star quality from the moment they make their academy debut. Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow were in that category and Watkins is another. He made his first Leeds appearance as a 17-year-old in 2008 and, other than spells out with injury, has been a key member of the senior squad ever since.
Big, strong, fast and athletic, Watkins is pretty much the model modern-day centre and – along with Keith Senior – one of the best players in that position during the Super League era, not just for Rhinos, but any club.
Watkins will be missed off the field as much as on it. He is popular within the playing group and with the coaching staff and is a genuine good guy in a sport with more than its fair share of them. So why is he leaving now, when he was under contract to the end of 2021?
When Watkins signed his latest – and final – Leeds deal, he was at the top of his game. The contract was announced in April last year, but will have been negotiated earlier than that.
Watkins had a fine season the previous year when he scored 13 tries and kicked 60 goals in 32 appearances and also starred for England in their march to the World Cup final.
Under the agreement signed then, Watkins’ wages would have gone up in 2020 and 2021, but a lot has changed since. Watkins suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury, the second of his career, in May last year, which ended his season. It is no coincidence Rhinos’ campaign, which was in a relatively healthy state at the point, went downhill rapidly once the captain was sidelined but, in hindsight, Watkins probably came back too early.
He played in his own testimonial game in January and has missed only two of Rhinos’ 21 competitive fixtures this term. However, it is clear Watkins has not regained the form he was in before his injury while a new young star has emerged in Leeds’ centres.
Teenager Harry Newman made his debut a couple of years ago when he became the first player born this century to feature in Super League. He scored 16 tries in 12 games for Featherstone Rovers on dual-registration last year and was a member of the England academy squad which whitewashed Australia in a two-match Ashes series.
Not selected for Rhinos’ opening five games of the current campaign, he has missed only three since then and crossed eight times in his 13 appearances.
Nobody is suggesting Newman is the complete package yet. Like any 19-year-old he has much to work on, particularly defensively, but he is the future and his emergence has led to Watkins switching into the pack for his final few games with Leeds.
So, in light of that and with urgent priorities elsewhere, particularly in the halves, Leeds were keen to renegotiate Watkins’ deal. He, understandably, was not happy with that and the ultimate outcome was a parting of the ways, though it was an amicable decision.
Originally Watkins was due to play on for Leeds until the end of this season, but NRL club Gold Coast Titans offered him a contract until the end of 2021, beginning immediately and Rhinos agreed to bring forward his release.
Sunday’s game against Catalans Dragons, therefore, will be his final game for Leeds and all Rhinos fans should wish him well. Watkins has never given less than 100 per cent for Leeds and stayed loyal through the ups and down of 11 years, despite offers to move elsewhere.
Allowing a star asset to leave is a gamble by Rhinos, particularly during their current crisis, but with Newman and Konrad Hurrell settled in the centres they are reasonably well off in that department and the likes of Alex Sutcliffe and Luke Briscoe – playing on the wing outside Ash Handley – could step in if necessary.
Importantly, Watkins’ exit opens up space on Rhinos’ salary cap and, as has been evident this week, they aren’t planning to sit on the cash. Losing Matt Parcell to Hull KR – the only team below Leeds on the table – is another risk.
It will strengthen the Robins, but probably not weaken Leeds as he has made only five starts this year, Brad Dwyer is now first-choice hooker and the incoming Shaun Lunt is more than useful back-up, alongside youngster Corey Johsnon who will get a chance if Super League survival is confirmed with games in hand.
As for Tui Lolohea moving to Salford, he needs to be playing, but wouldn’t be selected at stand-off ahead of Robert Lui or full-back in preference to Jack Walker, so that makes sense for all parties.