The 2017 Betfred Super League campaign is fast approaching and the excitement among fans is building. For Leeds fans, though, there is some uncertainty about what to expect after the disappointment of 2016 and the off-season transfer activity. But, have Leeds done enough to start climbing back up the table?
There is no hiding that 2016 was a huge embarrassment for the Rhinos. Going from treble winning champions to The Qualifiers after finishing 9th in the regular season came as a massive shock. A lot of things went wrong, for example the loss of three club legends in Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai was not dealt with well enough, the signings who came in to try and help cope with those losses did not settle quickly enough and then the Kirkstall floods back in December 2015 meant the club didn’t have a permanent training base until July. All of those things were bound to have an effect but, at the end of the day, performances on the field were not of a good enough standard and some of the defeats that were suffered and the final standings showed that.
By now though, Leeds should have moved on from all of that. Those things can’t be used as excuses any more. They have had the time to adapt, they are back in their new and improved training ground and, more importantly, at the back end of last season the team seemed to click. Of their final 13 games, the Rhinos won 11 of them and the team seemed to be enjoying their rugby again. Even the players who joined ahead of 2016, such as Brett Ferres and Keith Galloway, started to make much more of an impact and demonstrated why they were brought in. Hopefully for Leeds and their fans, things will continue in that way going into Super League XXII.
Of course, you can’t rely on problems to just go away as easily as that in sport. And just because the team may be slightly more prepared for what will be another long season than they were at this time last year, that does not mean that they will be back to competing for and winning trophies. It may take a while to get back to that, and their year shouldn’t be judged on whether or not they win a trophy. Having said that, some clear progression is a must. A team like Leeds, who have big name players in both the league and on the international stage, have to be showing that they are capable of contesting at a good level consistently over a full season once again. The fans, who showed so much patience and loyalty to the team during even the lowest points of 2016, will demand that at the very least.
The glaringly obvious thing, or person in this case, that hasn’t been mentioned about the Rhinos’ upturn in form in the latter stages of the last campaign is James Segeyaro, who as we all know by now has decided that he will not be returning to Leeds despite signing a 2-year deal in September. That was a blow for the Rhinos, as losing a player if that quality would be for any team. The speed and flare that he brought to the team from hooker made them a constant threat, and that will be hard to replace. But, the man who they have brought into replace him, Matt Parcell, has the ability within him to make up for that.
The 24-year old is very quick, strong and is a very promising player. When his transfer from Manly was announced, the supporters of the NRL club were confused and even angered that he had been allowed to leave, which is a great compliment to the potential that he has. If Parcell buys into playing his rugby in England and settles early on, then he certainly has the attributes to be a star for the Rhinos. That would make the fans forget all about the bitter taste that was left in the mouth after Segeyaro’s decision to stay in Australia.
The other signings made by Leeds haven’t been quite as eye-catching. Half-back Cory Aston, signed from Sheffield Eagles, and forward Jack Ormondroyd, signed from Featherstone Rovers, have both already featured for their new club in pre-season and have impressed to an extent, but if they can manage to force their way into the first team plans over the next few weeks or if they are bound to spend most of this season on dual-registration at Featherstone Rovers remains to be seen. Both are still reasonably young and have shown what they can do in the Championship, but may be ones who we see more of in the future rather than now.
How Leeds’ decision to not bring in a tried and tested half-back for 2017 will turn out has been a hot discussion point. It has been said that there is a lack of creativity and direction in the halves at Leeds, as well as a lack of experience when Danny McGuire is out. McGuire has had an awful time with injuries over the past year, and if he suffers a similar fate in the coming months then it could be a poor move to not bring someone in, but should he stay fit then he still possesses the skill and in-game awareness to be a positive influence on the side. Jordan Lilley, one of the few positives of 2016 but still fairly inexperienced, Liam Sutcliffe, who looks to be moving back into the halves after his brief spell at full back and the afore mentioned Cory Aston, who has not player Super League before, are the other options. Rob Burrow is another player who could play in one of those positions, but Brian McDermott may want to use him as an impact player from the bench coming on at hooker, as he has been doing for the majority of the last few years.
One player who is not a new signing, but will have just as much impact as one, is Stevie Ward. He made his comeback in the last few games of The Qualifiers so never really got the chance to get going, but will now have a pre-season under his belt and will be fit and ready to get back into the action. The energy and desire he plays with will be a boost for Leeds, and if he can find similar form to what he had in 2015 when people were tipping him to be a future captain of the side, then just having him on the pitch will give Leeds an extra edge that was missing for large parts during his absence. After the injury nightmare Ward has been through, it will be great to see him back.
The youth players are another reason for the Leeds faithful to be optimistic. Names such as Sam Hallas, Cameron Smith and Josh Jordan-Roberts were all introduced into the team and Super League. All of those youngsters held their own during their limited time on the field and showed why they are so highly rated at Headingley, and will now be looking to kick on and make more appearances in the first team. Those players are only going to get better, so don’t be surprised to see a good amount of them over the course of the next few years as they continue to develop.
As far as pre-season goes, what happens in the warm up games shouldn’t be judged upon too much as to how the 2017 season will go. So far, the Rhinos have played 2 games, losing the first to Wakefield and beating Hunslet in the second. Neither of those games have seen a side put out that will be close to what will start the season at St. Helens if everybody is fit and available, with the aim at the moment trying get the some of the younger/squad players some game time. The teams that will be put out in the games against Hull KR this Friday and against Featherstone Rovers next week are likely to be closer to what we will see start the season, but even then, the key players such as Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall will be playing their first games since England’s tie with Australia in the Four Nations, so won’t be firing on all cylinders.
2017 should be treated as a rebuilding process for Leeds. It would be extremely difficult for them to go straight back to the top, especially considering the strength of the likes of Wigan and Hull FC. It is for that reason that some realism is needed. A push towards the top 4 is probably the best Leeds could hope for considering what happened last year, but regaining a spot in the Super 8’s has to be the minimum requirement. Anything less than that would cause more damage to Leeds’ already bruised reputation.