Leeds Rhinos; what has gone wrong?

By Raj Bains

Sport, by its very nature, is cyclical. No matter which game is being played – no matter the level – teams and individuals peak and trough in form and success, with some coping better than others. It’s only natural, given their dominance over the past decade, that people should be taking as much pleasure as they are in Leeds’ complete failure to perform this season, and while the ‘anti-Leicester’ narrative is fulfilling on a surface level, it’s an insufficient prism through which to evaluate where the club currently stands. Manchester United perhaps, post-Ferguson, provide the most accurate sporting parallel, but that’s not to say that Leeds can’t return to somewhere approaching their best in near to short term future.

It’s frustrating, in honesty, given the struggle we have as a sport to generate the correct level of coverage and interest to do the game justice that the discourse around Leeds’ season has been so painfully one dimensional. The biggest pundits in the game have all attempted to say their peace, and while at times they’ve fumbled around with the right ingredients, their explanations and theories always come across half-baked, obvious and unfulfilling. There’s a degree of intelligence and nuance missing from the analysis that would immediately create content of higher quality and spark debates actually worth having, rather than blindly repeating the same dull platitudes until they’ve lost all meaning.

The truth is – like in most things – Leeds’ struggles this season have been caused by a concoction of issues that have combined to create the current on-field misery. Listing them isn’t all that hard, either: the loss of senior figures, an injury-hit squad, infrastructural damage, inexperienced replacements and a crisis of confidence are all symptoms that’ve been identified individually, but when taken together, the thing they’ve harmed the most is the consistency Leeds have built their success upon as a club. Consistency, muscle memory and process have been pillars in transforming Leeds from the perennial losers to one of the most decorated sides in the Super League era, and nobody appears to have been willing to point out the obvious.

The key to the success of Leeds over the years is how the club managed to minimise the variables that would often lead other clubs astray. Coaching changes were only made when absolutely necessary, the backroom staff remained largely the same, and players who’d retire were retained in positions within the club to ensure that their presence was still felt, and that the culture of winning that had been produced wasn’t allowed to diminish.

Kevin Sinfield's departure has been highlighted as a key component in Leeds' troubles
Kevin Sinfield’s departure has been highlighted as a key component in Leeds’ troubles

Through the extended service of players like Sinfield, Peacock, McGuire, Burrow, Ablett, Hall and the rest, the backbone of the squad was never under threat, with natural leaders already in place and never in any doubt about their future. No matter the results, Leeds always had a tried and tested foundation to fall back on, and nobody can doubt the value of that.

On that point, actually, while many have treated the news that Zak Hardaker is actively seeking to test his arm in the NRL as a sign that he’s jumping a sinking ship, it’s a reminder of how little talent the Rhinos have lost over the years before they were ready to. It’s well known that players would stay at, and join Leeds, on less money than they could make at any other Super League club – to be mindful of the salary cap – and with that the case, the fact that the club has retained talent as well as they have is something that should be applauded, rather than used as another stick to beat them with the second a player expresses the wish to move Down Under. Save perhaps Gareth Ellis, this is the first time that Leeds will reluctantly lose a key talent, but given that Hardaker has won all there is to domestically, his decision is far from a surprise. Some might say it was just their turn – the lure of playing in the NRL or international rugby union isn’t something that’s going to be avoidable forever, and it doesn’t look like changing anytime soon, either.

Through the loss of club cornerstones – namely Sinfield and Peacock – it’s far from unreasonable to have expected Leeds to have lacked a little of their direction and ruthlessness of old without their experienced campaigners in the side. A loss only compounded by injuries to McGuire, Burrow, Ablett and Hall, all of whom would’ve likely been seen as the natural on-field successors to that responsibility of leadership, the Rhinos have had to depend on fringe players far more than expected, and results have suffered as a direct consequence. That’s not to write off academy talent, but to highlight the far from ideal way in which their first exposure to first team rugby has been fast-tracked, and the knock on effect – no pun intended – that would’ve likely had in their immediate loss of confidence.

It’s easy to downplay injury, and point to the players lacking at other clubs, reduce it to mere numbers and write it off as yet another excuse, but given what we’ve said about the turbulence that Leeds will have already experienced with the loss of key figures and leaders, it’s safe to say that the Rhinos may have felt their lack of depth a little more than others would’ve. At times fielding a team without a recognised winger or hooker, often in the same games, Leeds were losing matches before they’d even set foot on the field. Still not at full strength, or anywhere really approaching it, at time of writing there are six players missing who’d be definite starters in influential positions – including the starting fullback, two first choice wingers, Stevie Ward who’s yet to feature this season and the best forward at the club in Adam Cuthbertson – which is obviously far from ideal.

Ryan Hall has missed months of the season through injury.
Ryan Hall has missed months of the season through injury.

Consistency, of course, doesn’t just concern itself with those working at the club and players in the squad, but the facilities, as well. While some have taken the lowest common denominator route and written off the surprise loss of Leeds’ training facilities due to sudden flood damage as negligible, their opinion lacks a basic understanding of how top level sportsmen operate, the value of routine, and the negative effect of introducing too much change at once. While it’s true that rugby league can be a simple game, preparing to play it at the highest level is far from it. While it’s appreciated that some clubs may well regularly train amongst the public in local gyms or council parks, that’s not what the Leeds players were used to. Perhaps, had this occurred last season, the experience in the squad and confidence they had in themselves would’ve just grin and bore it, but in their current state, the last thing Leeds needed was a further level of uncertainty created beyond their control.

Home comfort, familiarity and the focus they can provide may seem like marginal issues, but in sport, marginal gains are the backbone of any success. The fact that players would be training in unfamiliar environments, causing extended travel, some confusion and lack of cohesion amongst the squad has clearly had an effect on the quality of rugby Leeds have been able to produce, and if only a subliminal disadvantage, it would be churlish, unwise and downright obtuse to ignore such a major disruption to the way in which the club operate. While these might not be millionaire footballers concerned about priority parking for their supercars, they’re still elite athletes working towards sporting supremacy, so imperfect training conditions would remain a competitive disadvantage.

Talk of replacing Brian McDermott – whilst outwardly completely laughable – is made a tad bit more understandable given the short-termism that’s become increasingly prevalent in modern sport. Throwing in yet another change to the already volatile conception would be somewhat suicidal behaviour, and luckily, it appears to be a decision that the club seem in no rush to entertain. While the term transition carries with it negative connotations for fanbases, given that Leeds have just come off a treble-winning season, it’s fair to say that Rhinos fans are far from starved from success, so one season of failure – relative to their usually lofty ambitions – seems a fair trade in order to reboot the club ahead of its first major change since 2003. More is learnt through adversity than victory, and while harsh on the likes of Jordan Lilley and Liam Sutcliffe, this baptism of fire will have given them the type of thick skin they’d require to lead this club in years to come.

Jordan Lilley's emergence has been one positive for the Rhinos this year.
Jordan Lilley’s emergence has been one positive for the Rhinos this year.

In the immediate future, Leeds’ main aim should be – as odd as it sounds – to avoid relegation. While they were tipped for success at the start of the season, people underestimated just how large the tectonic shift at the club would be, and half the reason the rhetoric has been so one sided is because people were expecting another shot at the title, rather than a wooden spoon.

With more than enough money to spend this off-season, Leeds should be looking to bolster their squad in key positions, using their experience of the NRL market to pick up figures along the same lines as Ali Lauitiiti, Kylie Leuluai, Brent Webb, Marcus Bai, Scott Donaldson, Adam Cuthbertson and more, making sure they sign men likely to commit for the long term and buy into the ethos of the club, rather than just chasing the biggest names possible to make a statement. With talented academy graduates like Liam Sutcliffe, Josh Walters, Ash Handley, Cameron Smith and Jordan Lilley especially much more experienced than before, there are places available in the side for homegrown talent, especially with the likes of McGuire and Burrow not too far off retirement age themselves.

Leeds haven’t been anywhere like as good enough this season, but there are reasons why that’s the case. If we can seem them, there’s no doubt the club can, too. While it’s far from desirable to spend a season getting beaten weeks on end, it’s better to tackle issues properly, over time and with calm heads, than to merely paper over cracks in a rush and spend money that needn’t have been, wasting cap space, and panicking over the odd strongly worded match report or irate fan tweet.

The last great Leeds run wasn’t an overnight success. The top-placed finish and Grand Final victory in 2004 were preceded by Challenge Cup final heartbreak in 2003, play-off misery and a coaching change. The squad wasn’t wildly revamped, the club didn’t overspend or financially dope their way to victory, but they simply built on the base that defeat had provided them and introduced the relevant pieces needed to take the team to the next level, which was a formula that did well by them for over a decade. With key ingredients gone and the formula shaken, Leeds have done enough soul searching this season to know where and how they’re going to evolve this winter. Do it right, and this season can be looked back on in years to come as a catalyst, rather than a nightmare.