Youthful Rhinos hoping to shine
League Express checks out the Rhinos’ prospects for 2021
The Rhinos have lost two prop forwards in veteran Adam Cuthbertson, who heads to the Championship with York City Knights after six seasons and 130 Super League games with the club, and Ava Seumanufagai, who only spent one season at Headingley and has returned to Australia for family reasons and is reported to be joining the Canterbury Bulldogs in the NRL.
Seumanufagai played on 13 Super League games and 17 games in total for the Rhinos, but while in England he helped the club win the Challenge Cup in October.
The Rhinos will also say goodbye to another prop forward, Muizz Mustapha, who heads to Hull Kingston Rovers on a year-long loan, while PNG international and fellow prop Wellington Albert, who didn’t play a game for Leeds in 2020, heads for Keighley Cougars in League 1.
Meanwhile Stevie Ward and Dom Crosby have both retired because of injury, although Crosby didn’t play during 2020, while Ward was only able to play one game.
Centre Rhys Evans played five games for the Rhinos in 2020 while on loan from Bradford Bulls, but in 2021 he will revert to his parent club.
The Rhinos surprised the Rugby League world last week when they announced the signing of former St Helens halfback Kyle Eastmond, who last played in Super League in 2011 before leaving St Helens for a career in rugby union.
Eastmond, now 31, made his debut as a 17-year-old on the first day of June in 2007, when he helped St Helens defeat Salford 27-26 at their old Knowsley Road stadium.
He went on to play 66 Super League games for St Helens and played four times for England in 2009 when he had just turned 20.
Leeds supporters will hope that Eastmond can recapture the form that he showed in the early days before his departure from the game ten years ago.
Apart from the capture of Eastmond, the Rhinos have only signed two other players for the 2021 season, both of whom will replace Ava Seumanufagai and Adam Cuthbertson in the front row.
Zane Tetavano, 30, a Cook Islands and New Zealand international, joins the club from Penrith Panthers, after a 122-game career in the NRL, which started in 2011 with Newcastle Knights and included Sydney Roosters. He played off the bench for the Panthers in last year’s NRL Grand Final.
King Vuniyayawa, 25, who was born in Fiji and has played three times for the Fijian national team, joins from New Zealand Warriors, for whom he debuted in 2020, playing five NRL games in a season when the Warriors were based in Australia because of the Covid pandemic.
The Rhinos have been remarkably unfortunate in the pre-season in relation to injuries.
Of the four players named in the spine positions, Jack Walker (no 1) looks to be out for the season, Rob Lui (no 6) could be out for the first half of the season and Luke Gale (no 7) will probably miss the first two weeks. Only hooker Kruise Leeming (no 9) looks likely to be able to start the new season.
Fortunately the Rhinos do have some adequate replacements, with Richie Myler likely to continue at fullback as he did for much of last season, winning the Lance Todd Trophy at Wembley for his performance in that position as the Rhinos triumphed against Salford Red Devils.
The Rhinos also have Liam Sutcliffe, who settled into playing at centre last season, but will be able to move smoothly back into the stand-off role. Another player who might have been expected to take up that opportunity would have been Callum McLelland, but he is also suffering currently from a groin injury and is likely to miss the start of the season.
On the other hand, Rhinos coach Richard Agar could opt to start the season with youngster Jack Broadbent filling one of the halfback roles. Broadbent, 19 played three Super League games last season after making his debut in Round 14 and he was selected by League Express as a Leeds rookie to watch in 2021. He may get an earlier chance than he might have expected in 2021.
But much attention will inevitably focus on Kyle Eastmond, with coach Agar facing the tricky problem of integrating him back into Rugby League after a ten-year absence. There is no doubt about Eastmond’s ability, but the question is how long it will take him to adapt back into Rugby League and whether his current level of fitness, after having missed most of the pre-season, will be adequate for the aerobic demands he will face on his return to the game.
Last season Leeming and Brad Dwyer shared the hooking duties at Headingley, with both players making eight starts in Super League, and no doubt they will share the workload again in 2021, although in the event of one of them being unavailable, youngster Jarrod O’Connor provides yet more backup for that position.
Mikolaj Oledzki has been promoted from last year’s squad number 19 to this season’s number 8, while newcomer Zane Tetevano comes straight into the starting lineup with squad number 13. Kruise Leeming, Matt Prior, Alex Mellor and Rhyse Martin retain their squad numbers from 2020.
The next five forwards in line at this stage of the year are Cameron Smith, who laid out his World Cup ambitions in League Express last week, Tom Holroyd, King Vuniyayawa, Bodene Thompson and James Donaldson, a combination of any of whom is likely to give the Rhinos’ bench a solid look from the start of the season.
Next in line are two of the younger forwards who gained their first experience of first-team rugby last year, including Sam Walters, who had four outings, all in the starting lineup, and Jarrod O’Connor, who made two starts and two bench appearances.
Then there are two other young forwards – Levi Edwards and Morgan Gannon – who will both be hoping to make their debuts in 2021.
The Rhinos’ threequarters look as good as most in the competition, providing they are all fit.
Unfortunately boom youngster Harry Newman won’t have recovered from his broken leg in time for the start of the season, but the Rhinos look to have plenty of squad depth to compensate for his absence early in the season.
Liam Sutcliffe is the most obvious candidate to partner Konrad Hurrell in the centres, but Liam’s brother Alex came of age in 2020 and played eight Super League games, either at centre or from the bench.
Luke Briscoe provides cover on the wings for his brother Tom and Ash Handley, while youngster Corey Hall made his debut off the bench against the Catalans last September and will be hoping for more opportunities this season.
Liam Tindall is another young winger who made his debut in the same match last season and registered three starting appearances in total in 2020, showing great promise for the future. He looks likely to be a future favourite for the Southstanders as they prepare to return to Headingley from late May.
Leeds has always had plenty of young players battling for spots in the starting lineup, and the 2021 season will be no different.
Of the 32 players named so far in the Rhinos’ 2021 squad, almost a third of them are 21 or under.
Harry Newman, Tom Holroyd, Sam Walters, Callum McLelland, Jarrod O’Connor, Jack Broadbent, Corey Hall, Liam Tindall, Levi Edwards and Morgan Gannon illustrate the success of the Rhinos in developing young stars of the future, and although not all of them will play a significant number of games in 2021, Newman already has earned himself squad number 3, while Holroyd also has a spot in the top 20 squad numbers.
The problem facing Leeds coach Richard Agar is that he will be unable to give all of them the opportunity for regular first-team rugby, while most of them are now too old to play Academy rugby.
So the likelihood is that some of the young Rhinos’ stars are likely to be loaned out to other clubs to get more experience of first-team rugby. And, if that happens, they should find plenty of takers from Championship clubs in particular.
A REALISTIC AIM FOR 2021
For any Leeds Rhinos coach, both major trophies have to be key objectives every single season.
Last year the Rhinos took out the Challenge Cup against a spirited Salford Red Devils at Wembley, while they fell to the Catalans Dragons in the play-off stage in Super League.
This year they will once again aim to win both trophies, although they will also hope for a more productive opening day against Wakefield Trinity at Headingley than they enjoyed last year against Hull FC, when they fell to a humiliating 4-30 defeat.
The Rhinos will play their first home game in front of a crowd against Hull FC in late May, and they will certainly not want to disappoint their supporters for the second year in a row against the Airlie Birds.
Squad Numbers: 1 Jack Walker, 2 Tom Briscoe, 3 Harry Newman, 4 Konrad Hurrell, 5 Ash Handley, 6 Rob Lui, 7 Luke Gale, 8 Mikolaj Oledzki, 9 Kruise Leeming, 10 Matt Prior, 11 Alex Mellor, 12 Rhyse Martin, 13 Zane Tetevano, 14 Brad Dwyer, 15 Liam Sutcliffe, 16 Richie Myler, 17 Cameron Smith, 18 Tom Holroyd, 19 King Vuniyayawa, 20 Bodene Thompson, 21 Alex Sutcliffe, 22 Sam Walters, 23 Callum McLelland, 24 Luke Briscoe, 25 James Donaldson, 26 Jarrod O’Connor, 27 Jack Broadbent, 28 Corey Hall, 29 Liam Tindall, 30 Levi Edwards, 31 Morgan Gannon, 33 Kyle Eastmond
Ins: Zane Tetevano (Penrith Panthers), King Vuniyayawa (New Zealand Warriors), Kyle Eastmond (Leicester Tigers RU)
Outs: Dom Crosby (Retired), Adam Cuthbertson (York City Knights), Rhys Evans (Bradford Bulls), Wellington Albert (Keighley Cougars), Muizz Mustapha (Hull Kingston Rovers – year-long loan), Ava Seumanufagai (Canterbury Bulldogs), Stevie Ward (Retired)
Head Coach: Richard Agar
Assistant Coach: Sean Long
Assistant Coach: Jamie Jones-Buchanan
Women’s Head Coach: Lois Forsell
Under-19 Head Coach: Chev Walker
Head of Athletic Performance: Jason Davidson
Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach: Dan Grange
Head of Analysis: James Bletsoe
Head of Medical Services: Dr Marwan Al-Dawoud
Lead Physiotherapist: Ryan Flanagan
Pathways Performance Director: Prof Ben Jones
Lead Sports Scientist: Dr Dan Weaving
Equipment Manager: Glynn Bell
President: Andrew Thirkill
Chairman: Paul Caddick
Chief Executive: Gary Hetherington
Director of Rugby: Kevin Sinfield MBE
Finance Director: Nigel Chambers
Commercial Director: Rob Oates
Legal Director: Chris Ross
Director: Peter Hirst
Non-Executive Director: Jeffrey Walton
Operations Director: Sue Ward
Head Groundsman: Ryan Golding
Head of Customer Experience: Sian Jones
Head of Marketing: Matt Adams
Head of Media & PR: Phil Daly
Human Resources Manager: Sarah Tate
Home shirt: Blue shirt with white top separated by gold bands
Away shirt: Predominantly purple
Betfred odds to win the Grand Final: 10/1
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