As they prepare to host a Super League double header at Emerald Headingley, MARTYN SADLER talks to Leeds Rhinos coach RICHARD AGAR about his club’s prospects for the new season.
It’s an arguable proposition that Leeds Rhinos coach Richard Agar has the most demanding job in Super League.
Agar has to turn around the fortunes of a club with the biggest financial turnover in Super League after a disappointing two seasons that saw them competing in the Qualifiers in 2018 and then featuring for far too long in the relegation battle in 2019.
After a disappointing start to last season, Agar’s predecessor David Furner was given his marching orders only 14 games into the season. Agar took over at first on an interim basis, but after steadying the ship he was appointed on a rolling 12-month contract in early September as the Rhinos secured their place in Super League.
Last year the Rhinos unveiled their recently redeveloped stadium at Headingley, which had cost around £45 million for new North and South Stands, and the unveiling was done to great acclaim.
But in 2020 the Rhinos will want to begin to recoup some of that expenditure, preferably with big crowds cheering on a successful side, and Agar is the man who has to deliver that success.
Then there is the tragedy that has struck one of the club’s favourite sons, Rob Burrow, and the emotional impact of the terrible illness that has afflicted him.
Burrow has shown extraordinary courage since being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and his indomitable spirit was on show at Headingley last Sunday.
How much that has taken out of the Rhinos’ players remains to be seen, but Agar admits that the club has been on an emotional rollercoaster since Burrow’s illness was first made public.
“It did hit us very hard,” admits Agar.
“It’s difficult to put it into words, and it’s hard to gauge how it has affected everyone at the club. You can’t really explain how much people here love Rob and how much they are hoping that this terrible diagnosis can somehow be mitigated.”
As far as matters on the field are concerned, however, Agar is happy with the way things have gone since he took over the role last May.
He realised from the start that some changes would have to be made, and brought in Robert Lui from Salford Red Devils in a swap deal with Tui Lolohea, while recruiting Rhyse Martin from Canterbury Bulldogs, both of whom made a significant contribution to the Rhinos’ survival battle.
“It’s gone well, but because I got the job late we didn’t really discuss the role in depth until after the London game (on 1st September). So we had a fair bit to get through in pre-season,” says Agar.
“There’s been an evolution of the squad since I took over in the last six to nine months. We started last year by bringing Ava Seumanufagai, Rhyse Martin and Rob Lui to the club. At one point we sat in the classroom and tried to understand how a rugby team works and traits that have made good rugby teams for 100 years.
“The new guys certainly added to what we were doing, but I would also tip my hat to established players like Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Stevie Ward for driving us at a point where it would have easy to become erratic and go into our shells. We were in a pressure situation and we coped with it extremely well.”
Agar was in charge of a squad with some players clearly nearing the end of their careers, implying that some big changes would have to be made.
“To chop and change a roster overnight is not easy with the salary cap, the global market and financial issues,” he adds.
“But bit by bit we are moving the squad to having quality and depth. This squad also has youth, and we are succession planning and looking to create the right pathways. Our job is to take some of those kids and turn them into first-graders.”
Agar has made some particularly significant changes to the spine of his team, with Luke Gale and Rob Lui forming a new halfback partnership, while Kruise Leeming and Brad Dwyer will battle it out at hooker. Gale didn’t appear against the Bulls last Sunday, however.
“We had a heavy, intense training week in Spain and Luke felt a little pull on his quad. It was a common-sense position not to play him against the Bulls, given that it was a soft tissue injury. But Luke will obviously have a key role on the field for us this year and I’m confident that he’ll forge a great partnership with Robert.
“We have a young squad with a lot of good years in front of it, we have great depth in some key positions, including hooker, and I’m going to throw Corey Johnson into the mix for that position. And we have a lot of experience, strength and youthfulness in the guys who are behind them with lots of different permutations in there. If we do have any disruption we are really well covered.
“Kruise has had a knee injury and he could miss the first couple of rounds. He has a four to six week recovery from a cartilage problem. In the short term it’s a bit of a setback for him. We had it re-scanned and it showed something round his kneecap. We bought him for the long haul, so in the short term it’s a bit disappointing for him.
“We recruited Kruise from Huddersfield, and we also signed Alex Mellor from the Giants. He played on Boxing Day and they are both terrific young blokes. Alex is a young guy with a super attitude towards the game. He has had some good seasons at Huddersfield. He is the right profile, age and character in the way he plays the game and he is a good fit for our squad.
“To have that sort of strength and quality there will stand us in good stead during the year.”
And Agar admits he was delighted to be able to sign Matt Prior from the Cronulla Sharks.
“I think Brian Mac had a crack at him while he was coaching here too,” says Agar.
“I spent time at St George while he was playing there. He was good friends with Ava and Trent Merrin. I caught up with him in September and it took a bit of time to get the deal over the line. Matt plays with great consistency and he’s a warrior.
“Last year we had some great attacking skills in our pack, but now we have a guy with great line speed who wins tackles and is a really durable player. With him you know you’re going to get the sort of consistency that will be a really good fit. He is a super guy and a laidback character.
“At the other end of the scale, we have Mikolaj Oledzki, who has just turned 21, so as far as a starting front rower is concerned, he is still a pup. But he has great presence, he’s fit and fast with leg speed and great size, and he looks very confident and happy.
“Cameron Smith is also going to make an impact this season. Both boys are England Knights players. Backing them up we have Tommy Holroyd and Muizz Mustapha. Tommy is 18, he’s quick and super aggressive. I wouldn’t rule out him playing some games. I am excited about those guys but I’m also realistic. What they have shown in our pre-season games is that they can hold a position if they are given it.”
Following Merrin’s departure, Agar has appointed Stevie Ward as his captain for the 2020 season.
“Last year Stevie would have been a strong consideration for captain but he got an injury, so we gave it to Trent,” explains Agar.
“He has taken the honour and he takes the responsibility of captaining this club very seriously. He speaks very well and he cares about the team and about the club. There is no question that he gives you everything and you know that he will lead by example on the pitch. He is trying to show by leadership and example that he will be the best captain he can be.
“I know he has had his share of injuries, but the years when Stevie has played more than 20 games are the years when we have won the comp.”
2020 Squad: 1 Jack Walker, 2 Tom Briscoe, 3 Harry Newman, 4 Konrad Hurrell, 5 Ash Handley, 6 Rob Lui, 7 Luke Gale, 8 Ava Seumanufagai, 9 Kruise Leeming, 10 Matt Prior, 11 Alex Mellor, 12 Rhyse Martin, 13 Stevie Ward, 14 Brad Dwyer, 15 Liam Sutcliffe, 16 Richie Myler, 17 Adam Cuthbertson, 18 Dom Crosby, 19 Mikolaj Oledzki, 20, 21 Rhys Evans, 22 Cameron Smith, 23 Callum McLelland, 24 Luke Briscoe, 25 James Donaldson, 26 Alex Sutcliffe, 27 Sam Walters, 28 Tom Holroyd, 29 Corey Johnson, 30 Muizz Mustapha, 32 Tyler Dupree, 33 Jarrod O’Connor, 34 Jack Broadbent, 35 Wellington Albert, 36 Corey Hall.
INS: Rob Lui (Salford Red Devils), Luke Gale (Castleford Tigers), Ava Seumanufagai (Cronulla Sharks), Kruise Leeming (Huddersfield Giants), Matt Prior (Cronulla Sharks), Alex Mellor (Huddersfield Giants), Rhyse Martin (Canterbury Bulldogs), Rhys Evans (Bradford Bulls loan).
OUTS: Kallum Watkins (Gold Coast Titans), Tui Lolohea (Salford Red Devils), Matt Parcell (Hull Kingston Rovers), Brad Singleton (Toronto Wolfpack), Trent Merrin (St George Illawarra Dragons), Carl Ablett (retired), Brett Ferres (Featherstone Rovers), Nathaniel Peteru (released), Jamie Jones-Buchanan (retired), Ash Golding (Huddersfield Giants), Anthony Mullally (Toronto Wolfpack), Jack Ormondroyd (Salford Red Devils), Owen Trout (Huddersfield Giants).
26 December: Leeds Rhinos 30 Wakefield Trinity 4
12 January: Leeds Rhinos 34 Bradford Bulls 10
19 January: Wigan Warriors 10 Leeds Rhinos 22 (Liam Farrell Testimonial game)
24 January: Featherstone Rovers 34 Leeds Rhinos 22
26 January: Newcastle Thunder 52 Leeds Rhinos 8
31 January: Hunslet 48 Leeds Rhinos 6
Director of Rugby: Kevin Sinfield
Head Coach: Richard Agar
Assistant Coach: Jamie Jones-Buchanan
Academy Coach & Assistant Coach: Chev Walker
Assistant Coach: James Webster
Reserves Coach: Rob Burrow
Team Manager: Jason Davidson
Head of Physical Performance: Chris Black
Head of Analysis: James Bletsoe
Head of Medical Services: Dr Marwan Al-Dawoud
Physiotherapists: Alex Morrell and Gareth Robinson
Home shirt: Dark blue with light blue and amber bands
Away shirt: White shirt with blue trim on sleeves