Leeds Rhinos face tricky balancing act of staying afloat and ensuring the team remains competitive – Peter Smith
A LOT can happen in five months and Betfred Super League will re-emerge into a changed world on August 2.
That is particularly true of Leeds Rhinos who are now facing a tricky balancing act between keeping the club alive and ensuring the team remains competitive.
Leeds entered the Covid-19 shutdown on a high – sitting third in the table, on a run of four successive wins and playing some thrilling rugby – but there is a danger coronavirus could undo all that good work.
On the back of 21 weeks and three days without a game, the effect the virus has had on other parts of the business – including banqueting, the Headingley Lodge hotel and so on – and the prospect of a £280,000 cut in next year’s Sky TV handout, Rhinos are predicting a loss of £4m over the next 18 months.
That is a huge sum in rugby league terms. Chief executive Gary Hetherington says the club are “actively engaging with various partners to mitigate those losses”, but it seems cuts are inevitable across Rhinos’ entire operation.
Players have already taken a pay reduction, as have squads at other clubs, but such a big loss will put recruitment and retention for next season in serious doubt. Rivals – in Australia as well as Super League – are taking note.
As reported by The Yorkshire Evening Post on Tuesday, Rhinos captain Stevie Ward and 2018 player of the year Richie Myler – two of the squad’s higher earners – look set to join Toronto Wolfpack when they come out of contract this autumn.
Those transfers have been in the pipeline for a while and, though both players will be missed, are understandable. Ward, after all his bad luck with injuries, will perhaps benefit from a change and Toronto are apparently offering a long-term deal, which would be difficult for Leeds in the circumstances.
Myler has been excellent this year, standing in at both full-back and scrum-half, but wants to play half-back and has an opportunity to do that at Wolfpack.
Rhinos need to give youngster Callum McLelland some game time and he will move up the pecking order, while Leeds are reasonably well off in the back-row and have the likes of Sam Walters and Jarrod O’Connor awaiting a chance.
But fans expecting some high-profile new faces to either replace Ward and Myler or strengthen the squad should not hold their breath. Leeds’ management do have targets in mind, but can’t do anything about those until the 2021 budget has been fixed – and there are obstacles to overcome before that can happen.
Rhinos don’t yet know how many of their home games will be played in front of a crowd this year or how much cash they will have to hand back to season-ticket holders for matches cancelled or staged behind closed doors.
They are offering incentives for members who decline the rebate, but many fans’ circumstances have changed as well – not for the better – and some will have to take the refund, whether they want to or not.
Whether Rhinos have to look at cashing in on contracted players remains to be seen but, given their current financial plight, it could be a possibility. All clubs have financial worries to some degree or another, but the fear for Leeds is they will get left behind by the likes of Warrington Wolves and St Helens who are still making big signings.
Rhinos’ director of rugby Kevin Sinfield was criticised heavily during 2018 and 2019, but stuck to his plan and, before Covid-19 struck, it was working, with smart recruitment – including Richard Agar’s appointment as coach – producing better performances and results.
The danger now is that players – either potential targets or those already at the club – will look elsewhere if deeper cuts are made. More than ever, Rhinos need everyone – players, fans and sponsors – to pull together and make sure recent hard work isn’t undone.
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