AS two of rugby league’s great rivals prepare to renew hostilities, interim coach Richard Agar says the “whole organisation” must take responsibility for troubled Leeds Rhinos’ current situation.
It is somewhat fanciful that Bradford Bulls are promoting Saturday’s Coral Challenge Cup sixth round tie against them – the first meeting between the clubs in five years – as “the biggest rugby league derby on the planet.”
Fans in Hull, not to mention Wigan and St Helens and the small matter of New South Wales and Queensland, will certainly argue otherwise.
Nonetheless, it is perhaps no less fanciful than Agar thinking a few weeks ago he would now actually be in charge of the eight-time Super League champions and fronting a joint-press conference at Odsal as he did yesterday.
The decision of Rhinos director of rugby Kevin Sinfield to sack head coach Dave Furner over the weekend, just six months – or 14 games – into a three-year deal, stunned the rugby league world.
Yes, Leeds are clearly in the mire sitting 10th in Super League but no one truly saw that decision coming, least of all Agar.
The former Wakefield Trinity and Hull FC chief initially moved to the club in the newly-created role of head of player and coach development last December.
However, he joined Furner’s coaching team last month after assistant Jimmy Lowes’s unexpected departure and is suddenly now in the top job after the Australian’s surprise removal.
There had been improvements of sorts – Furner’s Leeds had only lost two of their last five games – but clearly not enough to convince Sinfield the man he had appointed was right for the job.
Asked about the players’ reaction to the news, Agar said: “I think there’s some collective responsibility on their side.
There were some players really upset by it – visibly upset –that Dave is close to. But they also realise that they’ve got a game to prepare for this week, and they’re resilient people.Richard Agar
“For one bloke to potentially carry the can... there’s a whole organisation there that plays a part in the club being where it’s currently at.
“There were some players really upset by it – visibly upset –that Dave is close to. But they also realise that they’ve got a game to prepare for this week, and they’re resilient people. After breaking the news and having a bit of a session, we wanted to let the players get home to understand, digest and speak to the coach.
“They could then come in tomorrow (Thursday) with a stronger focus towards Bradford.”
Agar, 47, conceded he was initially just as stunned and said: “It’s been difficult as Dave’s my mate, a bloke I really care about.
“It just came as an absolute shock. I got a phone call on Sunday afternoon from Kevin to break the news to me.
“We didn’t talk for too long and I just said I needed to digest it all.
“I immediately jumped in my car and went to Dave’s house; he only lives five minutes from me.
“I got to understand some of the reasons that had been put to Dave and what it was all about, and wanted to be there for him as a mate really.”
Ironically, Agar was sat alongside Bulls coach John Kear yesterday; they were assistant and head coach respectively when their Hull FC side caused another major shock for Leeds – back in the 2005 Challenge Cup final.
“I’m just pleased I was sat up there with John because he completely dominated the press conference!” said Agar.
“Bearing in mind what’s happened I came to it thinking I’ve been dropped in a right sh*t storm here. (But) John’s a master at this type of thing. We’ve had a conversation about the circumstances now. It all seems a little bit surreal really.”
With Kear’s Challenge Cup pedigree, Championship Bradford – out of Super League since 2014 – will undoubtedly be sensing the time is ripe for a shock in the forthcoming televised tie.
Agar, meanwhile, is joint-favourite with ex-Wigan Warriors boss Shaun Wane and Richard Marshall – who recently left Halifax – to get the job permanently.
However, having worked at NRL club St George Illawarra last year as head of player pathways, the ex-France boss recently stated how he loved the similar role at Headingley and had no urge to return full-time to coaching.
“Getting back into the helter-skelter of first team coaching wasn’t on my agenda,” he insisted. “Three weeks ago I was doing the job that I love, then Jimmy left quite suddenly and Dave, who is a good mate of mine, asked me to help him out.
“The speed with which this has happened meant there was no back-up plan at this moment.
“As probably the most experienced coach left at the club, I feel it’s my duty to step into the role and try to stabilise things during what is a difficult period.
“But honestly, all my conversations have been about will I look after it for this week, and then Gary (Hetherington) and Kevin will probably get their heads together and decide the best route for the club.
“Long-term future plans simply haven’t been discussed. Whatever role they see for me, I do want to be a part of that as they could and should become one of the dominant forces in the game sooner rather than later.”