Making sense of Leeds Rhinos’ recruitment plans

The recruitment market is in full swing but one club appears to have missed its place on the merry-go-round.

Leeds Rhinos have been noticeably absent from the headlines while other clubs have been getting business done. The only reports to come out of Leeds have been on outgoings, with both Stevie Ward and Richie Myler heavily linked with Toronto.

Fans are beginning to grow frustrated at the club’s apparent lack of activity.

But it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In two and a half years, the Rhinos have overseen a transitional period that has seen a huge turnover in personnel. Only seven players remain from the squad that won the Grand Final in 2017. Three of those, Ash Handley, Cameron Smith and Mikolaj Oledzki, were fringe players who made 16 appearances between them that year.

Since their last Grand Final triumph, they have signed 18 players. In comparison, the current Super League champions, St Helens, have signed five players in the same period of time.

Beyond that, Leeds have handed out five debuts to Academy players. It means that in just over two years, 23 new players have represented the club.

A look back on the most successful sides of the Super League era tells you continuity is key. Leeds’ golden decade was delivered by a squad barely touched but gradually tweaked along the way. Bradford made two signings before their treble-winning season in 2003 and the great St Helens side of 2006 was bolstered by three signings before they won the lot.

Drastic overhauls don’t bring success, but Leeds, partly by choice but also out of necessity, have gone through that process.

Since Kevin Sinfield has arrived he has been tasked with sorting out their salary cap. Kallum Watkins, Matt Parcell, Nathaniel Peteru and Tui Lolohea have all departed and been replaced by either homegrown talent or players on less money. As a result, Leeds’ cap is now in order and under Richard Agar they’ve assembled a squad ready to compete near the top and that crucially, has longevity. Luke Gale, Matt Prior and Adam Cuthbertson are the only players 31 or older.

Squad changes aren’t likely to be as frequent now and it’s much more likely to be a one in, one out regime. Agar felt his squad was a powerhouse prop off being complete, which emphasises his trust in the current roster.

Leeds only have five players off-contract this winter too. Myler and Ward are two of those and they are likely to be replaced. Leeds’ admiration of Australian Jai Field isn’t a secret and he could fill the utility void left by Myler. Ward’s departure will free up salary cap space but at the same time, Cameron Smith had emerged before lockdown and in Sam Walters and Alex Sutcliffe, Leeds boast two of the brightest young back-rowers in the game. They could well prove to be Ward’s replacement long-term.

That leaves Adam Cutherbtson, Brad Dwyer and Tom Briscoe off-contract and the likelihood is they won’t all leave. It means there’s little room for manoeuvre this year anyway.

Recruitment is cyclical and coaches normally have a three-year plan. The reality is that Agar, after much change, is in the first year of his. Changes won’t be at large.