Leeds Rhinos in-depth preview: Rohan Smith on creating a new legacy with revamped team

Rohan Smith tells LORRAINE MARSDEN of his plans to revitalise the fortunes of Leeds Rhinos in 2024.

WITH eight Grand Final successes in 14 years between 2004 and 2017, Leeds Rhinos were once considered the very pinnacle of Rugby League.

Add to that three World Club Challenge titles and two Challenge Cup final victories over the same period and the Headingley club really did have it all.

But since their last piece of silverware – a third Challenge Cup success of the 21st century in 2020 – things haven’t been quite so rosy.

Having looked set to face a relegation fight in 2022, coach Richard Agar left and was replaced by Aussie Rohan Smith, who managed to turn things around late on in the season and guide the Rhinos to what had, earlier in the year, seemed an unlikely Grand Final appearance.

That ended in a 24-12 defeat to St Helens and 2023 didn’t see them fare much better, when a lacklustre season eventually saw them miss out on the play-offs for the first time in four seasons.

But for Smith and his latest squad of players, 2024 is not about being on a journey back to the heady days of Old Trafford celebrations and World Club crowns. It is instead about creating a new story, a new legacy and new heroes.

“This is the start of something new; that is how a few of the senior players and I are talking about it,” says Smith.

“We’re not trying to get back to anywhere we’ve been before; we’re trying to create something new with a good group of people that are working hard for each other.

“The club expects to do well and it has been a high-performing Super League club in the past, but now we have to earn that status back.

“The past doesn’t guarantee anything in the future, so we have to build that back and become a strong team once again, and this group is an exciting one and we believe we can grow together.

“It’s been a really positive pre-season so far. The players that have experienced some tough times and the highs and lows of the last couple of seasons have grown and the players that have come in have complemented a core English group of players. The Aussies guys have all fitted in really well and know their roles within the group.

“It is still early days in terms of our on-field stuff, but as a group of people, we’re really getting on well and being really productive with our practice. So it’s been a good pre-season. The players are enjoying their time together and working hard.

“At this time of year everyone and every club is feeling positive and happy because everyone is still undefeated, but there is certainly a different feel here now compared to last year. 

“There is a different chemistry to the group and a different mindset to how we are going to play – it’s productive and happy.

“That new chemistry is down to the new players coming in. They have been brought in to perform a role in the team, but also to complement each other in personality. It’s important that you don’t have too many of the same type of people in a squad, but everyone needs to get along. 

“That is what we have here and it’s great to see.”

And the squad that Smith speaks so highly of has seen radical changes over the winter.

Among the seven new arrivals is a completely new spine. Halfbacks Brodie Croft and Matt Frawley have replaced Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer, with Australian Lachlan Miller and England international hooker Andy Ackers coming in to add experience at fullback and hooker respectively.

With a settled spine so often thought of as a key to success, Smith acknowledges that it is unusual for a club to make such drastic changes all in one go. He suggests it was a situation the club found itself in rather than planned for. But Smith believes the club has made the most of those changes and one the Rhinos could feel the benefits of them for years to come.

“We decided to make a couple of changes due to other players’ contracts not being renewed and some others choosing to leave,” explains Smith.

“And then, when we thought we were all done for this season, Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers became available. 

“That wasn’t something we planned, it was just a situation that arose, so the club struck when that opportunity was there to make a real impact on the squad.

“It’s a unique situation; it’s not common that a professional side changes its whole spine in one off-season, but it’s exciting. 

“I also think the future spine of the Leeds team is also in the building, so for now they have great mentors and people to support them along the way.

“It gives us an opportunity to start afresh with a new spine, re-introduce our principles and establish some new ones, so everyone is learning new things together. 

“We want to provide those players with the opportunity to do what they’re good at within a team system. They all have a job to do, and any particular day one might get more of an opportunity than another, but I feel we have a dynamic here that works well.

“It has been a big change but we’re confident that it will work because we have not just recruited talent or players, we have recruited personalities that understand their role within the group and fit well together. 

“Now we’ve got to get out there and show it.”

As the 2022 Man of Steel winner, Croft comes in with a reputation as one of the game’s leading halfbacks of recent years, while Ackers was handed an England call-up for the World Cup the same year after also showing impressive form for Salford Red Devils.

Super League fans got a taste of what Frawley will bring to Leeds after a one-year stint with Huddersfield Giants in 2019 before a return to the NRL.

So the fans will have an idea of what to expect from those three players but Miller might be more of an unknown to many Rhinos supporters.

Smith has promised an exciting, out-and-out fullback that will make his mark on the Headingley turf.

“Lachlan is a high-energy guy, he always busy and he’s got a really good work rate,” says Smith of his new number one.

“He spent a lot of time as a Rugby Sevens player and those guys have to work super hard. He’s very fit, he’s got a good motor and a broad range of skills that he has brought with him from the open-space type of sport that Sevens is.

“He can kick and pass, but his running is his biggest attribute. He can accelerate quickly and change direction, so he is clearly a good competitor.

“Plus he’s a fullback – not a halfback playing fullback or winger playing fullback – he’s a fullback.”

The remainder of the new signings are former Catalans second-rower Mickael Goudemand, centre Paul Momirovski and prop Kieran Hudson, who joins from Super League neighbours Castleford Tigers. Smith is excited by the mix and its impact on his squad.

“Mickael had a late start to the game so he hasn’t got many miles under his belt,” points out Smith.

“But he’s still experienced and has been in a tough, high-performing team and he’s brought that attitude to us.

“Paul has been in and around the three best systems of the last 20 years in Australia in the Storm, Panthers and Roosters, so he has great insight and experience to add to us, while Kieran is a promising younger guy who has had an alternate journey through football and the Championship and then last year at Castleford. He’s one for the future.

“It’s a nice mix to work with. We’re a young group across the board and I feel like there will be a lot of development of those younger players in the group.

“But we’re also experienced enough in our first-choice squad to be competitive straight from round one and we need to go out there and show that.” 

With varying amounts of experience between them, the new signings can have a bigger impact on the club than simply what they produce on the field. With the next batch of young players waiting in the wings to make their mark on the game, there is plenty of knowledge for them to feed off among the senior players.

Whilst Smith is reluctant to single out too many up-and-coming stars to watch out for, the very fact that there are several to choose from is another sign that Leeds are on their way back to what they have been best at in the past.

“I’m not one to point out individuals too much, but guys like Max Simpson, who played a few games the previous year but missed last year with an ACL injury, Riley Lumb, Alfie Edgell, Tom Nicholson-Watton, Leon Ruan, and guys like that, who poked their noses into the team last year, will get more opportunities this year.

“We are inexperienced in some of our depth, so with that comes chances for young guys to step up and take their opportunities.

“For whatever reason there has been a bit of a gap in terms of our youth development in the last few years, so there are not a lot of Leeds-born-and-bred players in their early-to-mid-20s in our group.

“But John Bastian and Simon Bell do a great job with recruitment when it comes to young players that we can develop in our system and the next group of players from 15 to 18 years old that are in our club now are very promising and very exciting.

“The long-term health of the club is in a very strong place and it is great to be part of it.”