Why 2022 could be a big year for Leeds Rhinos

If Leeds Rhinos have taken one lesson from the past few years, it is that things rarely go to plan.

Saturday, 1st January 2022, 6:00 am

Injuries, players’ personal issues, coronavirus and even freak weather conditions have all played a part in determining Rhinos’ fortunes since the historic treble-winning success of 2015.

Three relegation battles followed - as well as two major trophies - and none of those was predicted, but as 2022 begins, Rhinos look to be building something good.

There is still a lot of catching up to be done on league leaders Catalans Dragons and double winners St Helens, Leeds having lost all five meetings with those sides last season. But they beat everyone else, finished fifth in the table and could have been pushing for the top-three with a better start.

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Max Simpson is one of three highly-rated teenagers added to Rhinos' squad for 2022. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

Despite eight departures, or nine including Kyle Eastmond, Rhinos’ squad looks stronger now, it is fitter - so far - and looks capable of playing more effective attacking rugby.

Another big forward would be welcome, but there is competition across most positions, particularly at full-back, in the three-quarters and second-row.

Rhinos’ first-choice front-row of props Mikolaj Oledzki and Matt Prior and hooker Kruise Leeming is as good as any in Betfred Super League and if they hit their straps, new signings Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer will be a winning half-back pairing.

They are former Man of Steel nominees and played together in the NRL; Austin is the runner and Sezer and organiser and their partnership should ensure Leeds’ outside-backs get plenty of ball.

Boxing Day isn’t a reliable guide, but two tries each for Ash Handley and Harry Newman and one for Tom Briscoe was promising. Add in new winger David Fusitu’a and Rhinos look to have plenty of tries in them this year, which wasn’t the case in 2021 when, largely due to injuries and the lack of stability in key roles, only two players - both hookers - reached double figures.

What is really exciting, though, is the amount and quality of talent coming through Rhinos’ youth system, which is the best since the golden generation began to emerge more than 20 years ago.

Second-rower Morgan Gannon turned 18 a month ago and already has 13 first team games under his belt.

Centre Levi Edwards, just three weeks younger, has yet to make his debut, but impressed on loan at Batley in the Championship last year and was called into the England Knights squad, alongside Gannon.

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Oledzki - Rhinos’ player of the year and now an England prop - and Cameron Smith are both established Super League forwards at 23, full-back Jack Walker is a year younger and Newman will turn 22 a week after the season begins.

Utility-back Jack Broadbent, Rhinos’ 2021 YEP Shooting Star and second-rower Sam Walters are both 21, loose-forward Jarrod O’Connor is 20, prop Tom Holroyd will celebrate his 20th birthday next month and winger Liam Tindall’s is in September.

Highly-rated 17-year-old backs Jack Sinfield (scrum-half) and Max Simpson (centre) and stand-off/loose-forward Oli Field, 19, have just been promoted into the first team squad and there are several more knocking on the door. That’s 14 players aged 23 or - in some cases considerably - younger, 10 of them with Super League experience.

Off the field, a couple of key appointments have been made with John Bastian and Richard Hunwicks returning to the club. Bastian has a proven track record in unearthing and developing young players and Hunwicks transformed Catalans’ performance department as they went from relegation candidates to Challenge Cup winners, league leaders and Grand Final.

Put all that together and 2022 has the potential to be a big year for the club.

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