LEAGUE EXPRESS previews a season which could hold further progress in store for Leeds Rhinos.
Leeds have moved on several players following their run to the Super League play-off semi-finals last season, including what was often the first-choice halfback pairing of Luke Gale and Rob Lui.
Gale was stripped of the captaincy mid-season following a fall-out with coach Richard Agar, and after a year in which injuries also made a mark and two high-quality halfbacks were recruited, the former Man of Steel opted to take on a new challenge with Hull FC.
Lui has returned Down Under after a spell also characterised by injury, while another half also left with Callum McLelland joining neighbours Castleford, as has Alex Sutcliffe.
Konrad Hurrell is another notable departure after three years at the club, signing for champions St Helens, and elsewhere in the threequarter department fringe men Luke Briscoe and Corey Hall have moved to Featherstone and Wakefield respectively.
Leeds have retained most of the forward pack but King Vuniyayawa has left for Salford Red Devils after just a season at Headingley.
Jarrod O’Connor, Muizz Mustapha, and Corey Johnson will all begin the season playing on loan in the Championship with Bradford.
Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer are the headline arrivals, an experienced and high-profile pair tasked with taking the Rhinos by the horns and turning them into a title-challenging force.
Both have shown flashes of their quality in their time so far in Super League, with Austin a huge hit on his arrival at Warrington Wolves three years ago and Aidan Sezer starring early in his time at Huddersfield Giants.
The two 30-year-old New South Welshmen are no strangers either, having spent three seasons together at Canberra in the NRL, so the potential is there for a very successful partnership if Leeds can realise it.
Of course, the signing of a three-time Super League winner in James Bentley should not be understated either, and he could prove as good a signing as any of the others, if not the best.
The backrower was a starter in St Helens’ thrilling Grand Final win of 2020 and though he missed out on much of last season through injury, he’ll make a difference to the Rhinos when fit and firing again.
Leeds’ fourth and final addition sees David Fusitu’a, a prolific try scorer with New Zealand Warriors and a former Kiwi and Tonga international, come in to add firepower on the wing.
A record of 61 tries in 108 appearances is a mightily impressive one across his eight seasons with the Warriors and he’ll hope to add a few more to his tallies
The new halfback pairing will look to link up successfully with what is possibly the best pair of hookers of any squad in Super League.
Both Brad Dwyer and Kruise Leeming were excellent last season and, already vital cogs in the success of this Rhinos side, they will look to continue their upward curves and go even better this year.
Leeds can also be happy with their fullback options, at least if Jack Walker can get fit and stay fit. After a nightmare few years with injury, it appears he will soon be ready to return to the side and, Leeds will hope, the sort of form seen when he broke through.
If he does, Richie Myler will have some serious competition for that spot for the first time since discovering the position as his true calling.
Matt Prior took over the captaincy last season and he will look to lead from the front in more ways than one, having done so with his performances ever since joining in 2020.
He’ll likely spend time together in the front row with Mikolaj Oledzki, one of the standout forwards of last season who will look to go up another notch after earning his first two caps for England.
Bentley will be expected to make a big impact in the second row alongside Rhyse Martin, who enters his fourth season at the Rhinos, while Zane Tetevano completes the pack according to squad numbers despite a low-key first year with the club.
The likes of Alex Mellor, Cameron Smith, Sam Walters, James Donaldson and 18-year-old Morgan Gannon means there is ample cover in the back row this season, with Tom Holroyd and Bodene Thompson among the options in the front row.
Fusitu’a could be playing alongside one of the promising centres in Super League if he lines up with Harry Newman, who signed a new deal with Leeds in the off-season.
Still only 21, Newman looks set for the very top having already been a key first-team player for the past three years.
Ash Handley is likely to be first-choice for the opposite wing spot, with the other starting threequarter squad number handed to Liam Sutcliffe, who will hope it leads to a regular place in the side as a centre.
Tom Briscoe has been relegated in the squad numbers by the arrival of Fusitu’a but will still hope to play an important role in what is his ninth season at the club.
The same could be said of the younger Jack Broadbent, and a regular starting spot doesn’t appear to be too far from the reach of the 20-year-old following a promising breakthrough year in 2021.
Some of Leeds’ youngsters, like the aforementioned Newman, Gannon and Broadbent, are already established first-team players, while forwards Holroyd, Walters and Mustapha will all be just 21 years of age when the season begins.
There are plenty of teenage talents behind them also looking for a way in, including O’Connor who played 12 games last season but is among the trio starting the season at Bradford.
Liam Tindall will eye more first-team appearances after benefitting from a loan spell in League 1 with Doncaster, while the production line has kept on rolling in the background.
The headline name from the latest batch is, perhaps inevitably with the surname, Jack Sinfield, but at just 17 there are no expectations on him to break into the first team just yet.
Keep a watch too for Levi Edwards, who earned a call-up for England Knights at the end of last season alongside Broadbent, Gannon and Holroyd, and for Oli Field and Max Simpson.
A REALISTIC AIM FOR 2022
After winning the Challenge Cup in 2020 and reaching the play-off semi-finals last season, Leeds appear to be on a gradual upward curve.
With a strong batch of young players under his watch, Richard Agar will expect to push the team on at least another step further this season, especially if their new halfback pairing shines as brightly as it potentially could.
While the Grand Final remains a big, though not impossible, ask of the Rhinos, the consistency over the season for a first top-four finish since 2017 should be achievable while making a bid to regain their Challenge Cup silverware.
Squad numbers: 1 Jack Walker, 2 David Fusitu’a, 3 Harry Newman, 4 Liam Sutcliffe, 5 Ash Handley, 6 Blake Austin, 7 Aidan Sezer, 8 Mikolaj Oledzki, 9 Kruise Leeming, 10 Matt Prior, 11 James Bentley, 12 Rhyse Martin, 13 Zane Tetevano, 14 Brad Dwyer, 15 Alex Mellor, 16 Richie Myler, 17 Cameron Smith, 18 Tom Holroyd, 19 Bodene Thompson, 20 Luke Briscoe, 21 Morgan Gannon, 22 Sam Walters, 23 Jack Broadbent, 24 Jarrod O’Connor, 25 James Donaldson, 26 Corey Johnson, 27 Muizz Mustapha, 28 Max Simpson, 29 Liam Tindall, 30 Levi Edwards, 31 Oli Field, 32 Jack Sinfield
Ins: Blake Austin (Warrington Wolves), James Bentley (St Helens), David Fusitu’a (New Zealand Warriors), Aidan Sezer (Huddersfield Giants)
Outs: Luke Briscoe (Featherstone Rovers), Luke Gale (Hull FC), Corey Hall (Wakefield Trinity), Konrad Hurrell (St Helens), Corey Johnson (Bradford Bulls – loan), Rob Lui (released), Callum McLelland (Castleford Tigers), Muizz Mustapha (Bradford Bulls – loan), Jarrod O’Connor (Bradford Bulls – loan), Alex Sutcliffe (Castleford Tigers), King Vuniyayawa (Salford Red Devils)
Head Coach: Richard Agar
Women’s Head Coach: Lois Forsell
Assistant Coach: Sean Long
Assistant Coach: Jamie Jones-Buchanan MBE
Performance Director: Richard Hunwicks
Head of Analysis: James Bletsoe
Head of Medical Services: Dr Marwan Al-Dawoud
Lead Physiotherapist: Jonny Skinner
Equipment Manager: Glynn Bell
Under-18/Reserve Head Coach: Chev Walker
Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach: Charlie Venables
Head of Team Management: Jason Davidson
Pathways Performance Director: Prof Ben Jones
Nutritionist: Lauren Delany
Sport Science: Ryan White
Player Welfare Manager: Nigel O’Flaherty-Johnston
Assistant Physiotherapist: Trent Bowden
Rehab Therapist: Matt Duke
Masseur: Gina Brewis
President: Andrew Thirkill
Chairman: Paul Caddick
Chief Executive: Gary Hetherington
Operations Director: Sue Ward
Finance Director: Nigel Chambers
Commercial Director: Rob Oates
Legal Director: Chris Ross
Director: Peter Hirst
Non-Executive Director: Jeffrey Walton
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 with irregular amber bands
Away shirt: Silver and grey with aqua blue details
Betfred odds to win the Grand Final: 8/1
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