Peter Smith’s Inside Rugby League: Something special still being built by Leeds Rhinos

LEEDS RHINOS seem to be in one of those ruts where every step forward is followed by a couple back.

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 6:00 am
Leeds Rhinos' soon-to-depart director of rugby, Kevin Sinfield. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.
Leeds Rhinos' soon-to-depart director of rugby, Kevin Sinfield. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

The optimism generated by a record 60-6 win at Castleford Tigers didn’t last long, little more than a week in fact, until players and staff began to test positive for coronavirus.

That has led to successive games, against St Helens and Catalans Dragons, being postponed and, though training resumed yesterday, players caught up in the latest outbreak remain unavailable until they’ve completed a return-to-play protocol.

With Leeds also having players selected for Friday’s game between England and Combined Nations All Stars, coach Richard Agar has admitted he will struggle to raise a team for the same night’s fixture at Salford Red Devils.

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Leeds Rhinos' Jack Walker. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

That is a key game for Leeds, who need to prove the performance at the Jungle wasn’t a one-off and improve their win percentage if they are going to push for a place in the top six.

Clearly, with so many players unavailable, this week will be a tough challenge and, just when it seemed they were finding their feet and beginning to get key players on the field, Rhinos are back in the situation they were a couple of months ago.

With Leigh Centurions up next though, at Emerald Headingley in nine days’ time, Rhinos do have an opportunity to build a winning run if they can get something out of Friday’s clash. On top of Rhinos’ selection issues, director of rugby Kevin Sinfield last week confirmed he is leaving the club at the end of this season, to join the coaching staff at rugby union giants Leicester Tigers.

For the moment at least, he is carrying on as normal, but what impact that will have on recruitment for next season remains to be seen.

Leeds Rhinos' Mikolaj Oledzki. Picture: Tony Johnson/JPIMedia.

Sinfield’s exit was unusual in that he explained exactly why he is leaving, because his current role isn’t what he rejoined the club three years ago for and he no longer enjoys it.

The move to Leicester will allow him to get back involved with performance, which is what he wants, rather than being swamped in administration and red tape.

Sinfield has had a host of issues beyond his control to deal with during his spell as director of rugby, not least the pandemic which has had a financial impact and also made recruitment from overseas more tricky.

Overseas players have had a particularly tough time over the past 18 months, being a long way from friends and family during a global crisis and, in some cases, unable to return home during the off-season.

Leeds Rhinos' Jack Broadbent. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

That will, inevitably, make foreign players here think long and hard before signing a new deal, while ones currently in the NRL may take more persuading to make the move to Betfred Super League.

Rhinos provided some good news the day after Sinfield’s announcement when they revealed Leeds-born second-rower James Bentley has signed a two-year contract, beginning next season.

At 23, Bentley – who is currently recovering from a broken leg – is already a Super League winner, having started in St Helens’ Grand Final win over Wigan Warriors last November. He is a strong defender who takes no prisoners and will be a good addition to Leeds’ squad, possibly in place of Rhyse Martin whose contract ends this autumn.

His signing proves good players are still willing to move to Rhinos and, looking beyond the problems of this season, further indication of something special being built at Headingley.

Obviously, Leeds need a half-back, for next year and beyond, but they have some impressive young backs – the likes of Jack Walker, Harry Newman and Jack Broadbent – who have already made a mark.

And a couple of years down the line, Rhinos’ pack could be one of the competition’s best. If kept together, Mikolaj Oledzki (22), Kruise Leeming (25), Alex Mellor (26), Cameron Smith (22), Tom Holroyd (20), Sam Walters (20), Jarrod O’Connor (19) and Morgan Gannon (17) will be the cornerstone of the club for years to come, so it’s certainly not all doom and gloom.

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