Leeds Rhinos facing selection dilemma next week

CONCERNED LEEDS Rhinos coach Richard Agar admits he is facing a team selection crisis next week.

By Peter Smith
Saturday, 19th June 2021, 7:00 am
SELECTION HEADACHE: For Leeds Rhinos head coach Richard Agar. Picture: Phil Daly/Leeds Rhinos/SWpix.com.
SELECTION HEADACHE: For Leeds Rhinos head coach Richard Agar. Picture: Phil Daly/Leeds Rhinos/SWpix.com.

Rhinos were due to play Catalans Dragons in Perpignan today, but the game was called off earlier in the week after the number of positive coronavirus cases at the club rose to eight.

The visit of St Helens, scheduled for eight days ago, was also postponed and Rhinos did not have a fixture the previous weekend, when Betfred Super League took a break for the Challenge Cup semi-finals.

Leeds’ players and staff were undergoing another round of PCR tests today and if there are no more positives, training will resume on Monday ahead of Friday’s visit to Salford Red Devils.

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But England play Combined Nations the same evening and with three Rhinos men – winger Ash Handley, scrum-half Luke Gale and prop Mikolaj Oledzki – selected for that match, Agar reckons he will struggle to raise a team.

Rhinos’ Kirkstall training base was closed for five days after last week’s positive tests and that was extended following the additional cases on Monday.

“We’ve had a five-day shutdown followed by another five-day shutdown,” Agar said.

“With players picked in the All Stars game, I am struggling to see how we can get a team on the park.

ENGLAND CALL: For Luke Gale. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

“I am looking at it thinking I am not sure where we are going to get a team from.”

Agar is a former France coach and stressed he fully supports the England side and international game.

“We want our boys to play for their country and represent the All Stars,” he insisted.

Agar added: “I just find that not giving this game stand-alone status – and putting it before the busiest weeks of the season and throw in Covid – is putting enormous strain on clubs.

“We want to support the international game to give Shaun (Wane, England’s coach) and England the best chance, but the scheduling of this game, in a normal Super League round, before the congestion, well it’s damaging to the competition and we are putting the elite players under more strain. Give the fixture the spot in the calendar and the preparation it warrants.”

The current cases are Rhinos’ second Covid outbreak, following one in pre-season and the coach admitted it has been a huge disruption.

“We got a good win at Cas, the boys were buzzing and we’d got some momentum,” Agar reflected.

“We’d got some players coming back as well and then this hits us. Anyone who’s got Covid is not missing for 10 days, they are missing for 17.

“Day 18 is when they can get back in with us because of the return to play protocol. We lose the people on track and trace for 10 days, so it is massively disruptive.”

He added: “Last year we could put a brave face on it.

“We were all pleased to get the game going again.

“We played under some tremendously challenging circumstances last year and did our utmost to get a team on the field. Now we’re going to go four weeks without a game and we’ve gone 10 days without training.

“We’ve got blokes who’ve been stood down for 17 days, it is just chaos.

“We talk about controlling the controllables, but there’s big parts of this we have got no control over. One thing we have got to do is adhere to regulations.

“It is so dangerous to try and contrive situations and we won’t do that.

“People’s health and safety is involved so we will play by the book, by the rules, but it has created very unwanted disruption for us.”

Agar fears the current situation may be the tip of the iceberg for the game.

Huddersfield Giants have also had an outbreak and their home game against Wigan Warriors last week was called off, but the Leeds boss expects more to follow.

“I’d hazard a guess there may be a fair bit more disruption, given the trends in the country and how it has worked before,” he warned.

“It may well not only be us that’s affected.

“There is a congested fixture list coming up and it is going to put an enormous strain on the game, as well as on us.”

He added: “We were lucky in some respects last year that we were able to field two teams.

“In the run up to Wembley we managed to not double too many people up in some games.

“But given Covid and the injury situation we’ve got at the moment, we are struggling to get 17 on the park – and it’s not a seven-day stand down, it’s 17 days. Bringing blokes out of a 10-day stand down, or 17 days, we were quite prepared to do that in some cases this weekend, but it is not ideal.

“It is unfair on the players.”

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