Peter Smith’s Inside Rugby League: Why we’re not likely to see the best of Leeds Rhinos until Super League 2022
IT IS BEGINNING to look like we will never know how good Leeds Rhinos’ 2021 side could have been.
With more than half of Rhinos’ season completed, coach Richard Agar has still not fielded anything resembling his first-choice one to 17.
Players have begun to return from injury, suspension and Covid, but every step forward is inevitably followed by a couple back.
Luke Gale returned from a two-match ban at home against Catalans Dragons, but Rob Lui missed out with a hamstring injury; Harry Newman and Callum McLelland featured for the first time this year in the return meeting with the French side, but Bodene Thompson, Rhyse Martin, King Vuniyayawa and Morgan Gannon were all prevented from playing, for one reason or another.
First-choice halves Gale and Lui have yet to pair up this term and while full-back Jack Walker is now the only pre-season casualty still unavailable, Jack Broadbent, who did so well slotting into the outside-backs, is unlikely to play again in 2021.
Zane Tetevano was Leeds’ major signing ahead of this season, but a four-game ban and then illness and injury have restricted him to just five - or more accurately, four and a half - appearances so far, from 14 games played.
Injuries have been an issue from, literally, day one, Gale having torn a pectoral muscle in Rhinos’ first training session of pre-season. Added to that, six players have been suspended - Thompson twice in three matches - and coronavirus has also had a significant impact.
Only Tetevano, who is also struggling with an Achilles problem, has not returned following Leeds recent outbreak, but Rhinos have lost players before each of their last two matches, on test and trace.
Leeds’ problems aren’t unique; most teams in the competition have had similar issues, but it is frustrating from Rhinos’ point of view because there were high hopes going into this year.
Last season’s Challenge Cup final win set a platform and fifth place in the table, which would have been disappointing a decade ago, was a step in the right direction following previous struggles against relegation. Going into round 15, of 25, Rhinos are seventh in the table and, with the top six to qualify, definitely not out of contention for a place in the play-offs.
If they do manage to force their way in and get all, or most, of their best players on the field for the semi-finals, they might be able to do some damage.
Even with so many key men unavailable, Leeds have been competitive in every game except one, the away defeat at Hull KR. A second-string side, with two forwards in the halves and reduced to 12 players for 35 minutes, gave eventual winners St Helens a real fright in the Challenge Cup.
Also with makeshift line-ups, Rhinos ended Warrington Wolves’ impressive run earlier this month and led at half-time in back-to-back games against table-topping Catalans Dragons.
The way they came unstuck after half-time was alarming but, with a strong line-up available, Leeds would not fear any of the current top six and their past three first halves have highlighted what they are capable of when they get their game together.
Three big positives have come from the season so far. Firstly, Rhinos’ pack has been excellent, even without Tetevano for most of the campaign.
Second, Rhinos’ young players are beginning to step up. Fourteen of the 31 players with a squad number are aged 22 or younger, most of them have had a chance this term and they’ve done well.
Thirdly, two quality recruits have been signed for next year. James Bentley, the Leeds-born St Helens second-rower, will enhance Rhinos’ talented young pack and Aidan Sezar’s arrival should solve a problem in the halves. Ironically, both those players are currently injured but, when fit, they are proven performers at the top level and will improve the squad.
It’s highly likely some of the current group will leave in the off-season, but things do seem to be shaping up nicely for 2022, even if this year has to be written off.
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