Their script for this season may have included a change of coach, but not with six games played.
Rhinos’ long-term plan involved Richard Agar moving from coach to another job in the football department, with a new team boss coming in.
But, after Agar steadied the ship following the relegation battle he inherited in 2019, won a trophy in 2020 and took Leeds to within 80 minutes of the Grand Final last year, there was no urgency.
The situation has changed. Following some high-profile recruitment in pre-season, Rhinos were expecting to challenge the likes of St Helens, Catalans Dragons, Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves for a place in the top four, at least, this term.
With a strengthened backroom staff, a trouble-free pre-season and clean bill of health, it appeared the foundations had been laid for a successful campaign. But the moment Richie Myler was injured, just 15 minutes into the opening game against Warrington, Rhinos’ season went off the rails.
After five defeats in six matches and on the back of successive very poor performances against Hull and Salford Red Devils, it was obvious something needed to change. Having accepted he wasn’t having enough impact, Agar has done the honourable thing by stepping aside. That has paved the way for him to remain at the club in a different position and – as someone who is steeped in the sport and has extensive contacts in both hemispheres – he remains an asset.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who had been Agar’s assistant since the 2020 season, is now interim-coach, helped by Sean Long and performance director Richard Hunwicks.
As is usually the case, Agar’s successor has taken over at a difficult time, but it is a smart appointment.
Long has more experience but Jones-Buchanan is Mr Leeds Rhinos, having supported and spent his whole career at his home-city club. He’s a popular figure and one fans will rally behind, which was an issue. It’s not ability Rhinos are lacking; motivation and attitude appear to be the main problem.
Jones-Buchanan is an inspirational character and, if he can inject some passion, energy and enthusiasm, the technical side of things shouldn’t be a concern, particularly after a full pre-season under Agar.
If, in a few games’ time, Rhinos are still producing listless performances, with talented individuals playing well below their level, it will be clear the problems are much more deep rooted. Rhinos’ form last year, in very difficult circumstances, indicates that isn’t the case. Interim suggests temporary. Chief executive Gary Hetherington says Rhinos are now searching for a new head coach with a “blank sheet of paper”.
Realistically, having already outlined a succession plan, they probably do have candidates in mind, but the situation has changed. Rhinos were not expecting to be without a permanent head coach in March and somebody who will be available next year might not be now. Jones-Buchanan is at the start of his coaching career and, obviously, the preference would be for somebody with more experience.
If Leeds can string some good performances and wins together, he will certainly make a claim to be permanent team boss at some stage, but he is only 40 and has time on his side.
Nobody can doubt Jones-Buchanan’s commitment to the club and he has already made it clear he will do what’s best for Rhinos, including stepping aside if somebody who can do a better job comes along.
Last year, Wakefield Trinity gave Willie Poching an opportunity to show what he can do as interim-boss and, after an immediate upturn in performances, he secured a permanent deal, despite interest from other candidates.
Jones-Buchanan deserves a similarly open-minded approach from everyone involved and, one thing is for certain, he will give it everything he has got.
Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. You’ll enjoy unlimited access to the latest on Leeds United and Leeds Rhinos. With our sports digital subscription, you’ll also see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get exclusive content. Click here to subscribe.