League Express editor MARTYN SADLER reacts to Leeds Rhinos’ astonishing revival under their coach Rohan Smith, which has culminated in them reached the Betfred Super League Grand Final.
I was at Headingley back in February for Leeds Rhinos’ first game of the season, when they hosted Warrington Wolves.
They were defeated 20-22 by the Wolves, with James Bentley being sent off early in the game for a high tackle on Gareth Widdop.
Widdop scored a brilliant opening try for the Wolves in Daryl Powell’s first game in charge and most observers predicted that the Wolves would have a great season under their new coach, while the Rhinos would struggle.
How wrong we all were! But for a while it looked as though we were correct, particularly about Leeds.
At the end of March the Rhinos were joint bottom of Super League and, after their defeat to Castleford, I speculated that they could be genuine relegation candidates.
“Unless the Rhinos can demonstrate significant improvement then they certainly will be in danger of relegation,” I wrote.
“Just like every other club in the competition, they don’t have a free pass that entitles them to remain in Super League forever.
By then Richard Agar had stepped down as Leeds coach and Jamie Jones-Buchanan had taken interim charge. Their next game was against St Helens and, true to form, they were hammered 0-26 at home.
So to see them now in the Grand Final after this remarkable victory over Wigan on Friday night is an amazing achievement by their new coach Rohan Smith, whose appointment at Headingley was widely questioned by many people, including a significant number of Leeds supporters.
Smith is a man of relatively few words. He certainly doesn’t try to promote himself or his own achievements.
Getting Leeds to the Grand Final from such a lowly position must surely qualify him as the Super League Coach of the Year, despite the fact that he isn’t even among the three candidates to have been nominated for that award.
Admittedly there is strong competition for that title from Saints coach Kristian Woolf, Salford coach Paul Rowley and Wigan coach Matty Peet, who are the three nominees.
But if Smith can lead Leeds to victory on Saturday he will demonstrate the danger of nominating coaches or players for awards before the season has ended.
Both teams came into last Friday’s game at the DW Stadium with key players missing.
Cade Cust had failed to recover after being injured two weeks earlier, while their stalwart Liam Farrell was also absent with injury.
Leeds had more potential first-team players missing, including Harry Newman, Ash Handley, Rhyse Martin and Morgan Gannon. But they handled those absences remarkably well.
Last year, Leeds came to Wigan in the play-offs and defeated their hosts 8-0.
But the feeling about both teams has changed radically in the period since then, which is perhaps reflected in the respective attendances.
In 2021 there were just 7,396 spectators in the DW Stadium to see that Rhinos’ victory in a game that had just one try by Ash Handley and two goals by Rhyse Martin.
That figure was increased to 12,777 on Friday night and those who were there saw a game that was far more exciting than last year’s clash, despite the closeness of the score in 2021.
A year ago I wrote: “Although no one could criticise the two teams’ commitment and character, the truth is that this was a game purely for those Rugby League fans who prefer defensive slogs to attacking brilliance. And I would guess that those people are in the minority.
“My advice to Wigan would now be to recruit a coach who will instil a desire to entertain into the team if they seriously want to reverse the apparent decline in support the club is enjoying.”
The Wigan directors did follow that advice when they appointed Matty Peet and, despite their defeat on Friday, Peet has revived Wigan’s reputation for playing great football, not least among the people of Wigan. I hope the rise in their crowds will continue next season.
As for Leeds, they are the only team in Super League that has won the title after finishing fifth in the regular season, which they did in 2011 and 2012. And they now have a very good chance of doing that again, although without Aidan Sezer, who left the field after John Bateman’s challenge and didn’t return.
Leeds have played St Helens four times in the Grand Final – in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011 – and they were the winners each time.
In 2022 they face their biggest challenge yet, but they are perfectly capable of emulating their distinguished predecessors.
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