October saw Leeds Rhinos experience a greatly memorable night underneath the rain and lights of Old Trafford as they ended Castleford Tigers’ impressive run of victories against them in the best way on the greatest stage. When Cas finished top of the pile following the Super 8s with a record ten point lead over the Rhinos in second place, pundits and fans alike spoke in a manner suggesting that the destination of the Super League trophy was a foregone conclusion. However, these people apparently discounted the value of experience of big games – something Leeds have in abundance and the Tigers, simply, don’t.
A comprehensive 24-6 victory followed with Danny McGuire, Tom Briscoe and Brad Singleton inspiring the eight time winners to success, emulating the class of 2015 which saw off legends Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai in the best manner before retirement. This year saw the departures of Rob Burrow – retirement – and Hull KR bound McGuire and there is no getting away from the fact they will both be huge misses at a new look Headingley in 2018. The Harry Sunderland trophy winner McGuire saved one of his best tactical performances for the Grand Final and Messrs McDermott and Hetherington will maybe have been kicking themselves for letting him leave. The number 6 shirt has, for 2018, been assigned to McGuire’s half back partner of last season, Joel Moon. After starting the season at centre, the Australian was moved to stand off and his elusive running and creativity boosted the Rhinos attack no end and saw them, following the early season drubbing by local rivals Castleford, hit form and earn eight wins from the next ten matches, shooting them up the table. Fifteen Super League tries and nine assists show his attacking value to the team and, while his reliance on broken play and improvisation makes it hard to see him tactically controlling a game, 2018 – much like 2017 – shouldn’t see him needing to step up to that mantle.
That is because the new incumbent of the number 7 shirt is the former Warrington and Catalans scrum half Richie Myler. One of the highest profile signings of the off season, Myler is returning to English shores following two seasons in Perpignan and Rhinos’ fans will be hoping he can hit the ground running; it is important he gets a good start because, otherwise, pressure may start to build on him while wearing the shirt of now-departed legend Burrow. Many people view his time in France as one where he has underachieved but, having scored 26 tries in his 50 matches – over half of which were as part of the team which struggled hugely in 2017 – this view may be wide of the mark. Leeds fans, however, will be hoping to see him get back to the form which saw him earn six England caps while with Salford and Warrington previously and there is nothing as yet to suggest that he will not be able to form a reliable partnership with Moon in the halves to direct the reigning champions to success – at the age of 27, Myler is now coming to the stage of his career where he must perform consistently and become a leader in the teams he is part of and, under the stewardship of Brian McDermott, Leeds may well have a new half back star in their midst. He has been quoted saying that “it was perfect for me because they play the kind of rugby which fits my game” and the Rhinos will be hoping that this rings true in 2018.
While the majority of the Rhinos team picked itself towards the back end of the previous campaign, late 2017 saw an almighty battle emerge for the full back position between two academy graduates, Ashton Golding and Jack Walker. After starting the season with the number 1 shirt on his back, 21 year old Golding seemed to be getting to grips with a hugely important role in a top team and, while he wasn’t chiming into attacks in the manner Rhinos fans would have hoped for, he was proving a reliable asset to the club as the last line of defence. However, the rapid development of Walker saw him lose his grip on the jersey in the second half of the season as the former Oulton Raider was selected at full back in some of the biggest games of the season, including the Super League Play Off semi final and Grand Final. After scoring a hat trick against Doncaster in his first team debut back in April, the Rhinos were instantly excited and, after a contract wrangle which threatened to see Walker leave in the off season, were treated to some superb displays which belied the 18 year old’s tender years. While Golding has held onto the number 1 shirt for 2018, Walker has been promoted from 31 to 24 and will be in the first team squad for the season, unlike last season, and it wouldn’t at all be a shock to see the younger player nail down the full back jersey as his own next season.
Also in the backs, it is fair to say that Ryan Hall, Kallum Watkins and Tom Briscoe are nailed on starters. Hall, while nowhere near as prolific last season as previous seasons, is still a vital part of the Rhinos with his defensive solidity and ability to batter over the line when presented with a scoring opportunity. He is the sort of player who doesn’t let his performance drop and isn’t afraid to tell teammates when theirs is – the sort of player, then, that every team needs. On the other flank, Briscoe endured a tricky campaign. Seemingly shot of confidence, his uncertainty under the high ball which was evident in the middle of the season was ruthlessly exposed by Mark Sneyd and his Hull FC teammates in the Challenge Cup semi final. With many fans calling for him to be cast aside, coach McDermott stood by his man and made a point of defending him to the hilt. What happened next was almost like a fairytale – after going away and working on this weakness in training and ensuring his protection from teammates when targeted, Briscoe found some confidence and form at the business end of the season; suddenly he was reliable under the high ball again and then, if his improvement wasn’t already evident, he turned up in the Grand Final with a sterling performance with two tries under his belt – form which he will be striving to maintain and improve on in 2018. Last season’s vice captain, Kallum Watkins, had a superb campaign inside Briscoe and is one of the most dependable centres in Super League. Strong in defence and dangerous in attack, the academy graduate took on the role of goalkicker in the latter part of the season and proved a reliable one with a kick success percentage in the mid 80s. A great RLWC campaign has followed and, surely, a strong 2018 will too. One of the great finds of the season was that of Liam Sutcliffe as a centre. Initially used as something of a utility player, partially because of injuries through the squad, he started to nail down the position of left centre as his own, so much so that he has been rewarded with the number 4 shirt vacated after Moon’s move to 6. Hopefully, a full season in the same position will be good for his development because the potential Sutcliffe shows is huge – perhaps a reason why Wigan Warriors were rumoured to be interested in signing him.
The development of the Rhinos pack of forwards was possibly their greatest success in 2017 with some players who started the campaign as inconsistent and unreliable ended the season with places in RLWC squads and Super League winners’ medals, namely Anthony Mullally and Brad Singleton, both of whom starred for the Irish Wolfhounds Down Under this month. After injuries to more experienced forwards such as Keith Galloway and Brett Ferres, it was vital that the two younger forwards stepped up and they certainly did. Mullally, with his gangly running style and superb leg drive, posed a constant menace to defences as he seemed to make yards with great ease and, also, chipped in with his fair share of tries – one of which came in the hard fought Super League semi final victory over Hull thanks to his awareness and support play. Singleton has definitely become one of the most aggressive prop forwards in the competition and his hard running has punched numerous holes in opposition defences throughout the league, something which he continued while wearing the green of Ireland. His performances were so strong that, in the match preceeding the Grand Final against Hull, he rightfully earned the man of the match award – and wrongfully had a try disallowed – and, had it not been for a sensational performance from the mercurial McGuire, he may well have done the same in the Grand Final. Both of these players performances have earned them promotions in the squad number reckoning for 2018 with Super League’s only vegan Mullally moving from 20 to 16 while Barrovian Singleton will have the number 10 shirt vacated by Adam Cuthbertson’s move to 8.
One issue that has arisen by the departure of McGuire is that of the Rhinos’ captaincy, a problem which may be filled from someone in Leeds’ second row ranks. The lead candidate, in my opinion, is Stevie Ward. Aged 24, the local boy would be a long term option and has displayed sheer bloody mindedness and bravery to pull on the Leeds shirt, none moreso than in the week running up to the Grand Final, just eight days after dislocating his shoulder. This led to a display of maturity by withdrawing himself from selection for England’s RLWC squad in order to fully recover for the Rhinos 2018 campaign, giving up a chance that hundreds of people would snatch at. Moreover, Ward has shown himself to be a truly superb player, scoring tries, defending strongly and showing consistency and leadership throughout 2017. Another option, and very much going the other way from a long term captain, it Jamie Jones Buchanan. In the same way that the captaincy went to McGuire following the retirement of Kevin Sinfield, the elder statesman of the team is a true warrior of rugby league. Aged 36, JJB possibly has a season left in him and it would be fitting to let him be the captain of the club as his swansong – his love for the club is evident and he is a born leader.
In the shape of Brad Dwyer, arriving from Warrington as a hooking alternative to Dream Teamer Matt Parcell, Nathaniel Peteru, the prop forward heading to Leeds from the NRL and Myler, the Rhinos definitely have some players who promise to deliver big things at Headingley and to keep the success running – and Leeds fans will be praying that that is the case. Of course, they are all too aware that a good year isn’t always followed in the same manner – just look at the 2016 campaign that followed their 2015 success.
2018, unlike any other year in recent memory, promises to be a strange one for the Rhinos. Not only have two living Leeds legends departed in McGuire and Burrow but their famous Headingley ground is being redeveloped on both flanks – change is definitely afoot in West Yorkshire but it would be foolish to write off the Rhinos for they always seem to be in the upper echelons of the competition and will still be in with a shout for the big prizes in 2018.