Life seems pretty good in Leeds right now. They are the regining Super League champions again, and have been in four of the last six Grand Finals. They have a very large base of support, indeed possibly the largest in British club rugby. They have a successful Academy programme, which in turn is increasing the level of competition in their 1st team. They have a very talent coach who has become a proven winner in a very short amount of time. They’re welcoming to the club this season some world-class talent from the NRL. If you’re at the Leeds Rhinos, you’ve got to be feeling confident heading into the new season.
This year, here are a few wrinkles to throw into this situation. Firstly, they sent a lot of players to the World Cup, and whilst the likes of Jamie Peacock, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire probably want to prove a point, it remains to be seen whether they have the energy or preparation to do so straight away (Peacock is already on record bemoaning this situation). Secondly, this season is the nearest the Rhinos have come to disrupting the great side they’ve built up over the last few years, with Gareth Ellis leaving and Matt Diskin being replaced as the no.1 hooker by Danny Buderus. For the most part I doubt these changes will affect the Rhinos adversely too much, but I do think it could affect their rythmn to start with.
Even so, you would have to think that the Rhinos are the team to beat again this season. They have a matchday seventeen of outstanding quality, and on top of that their Academy leaves them with strength in depth. They’re able to tough it out in the forwards if they have to (as last year’s Grand Final showed) but they’re at their best when their strikeforce is causing mayhem from deep. With even their forwards like Jamie Jones-Buchanan able to break from within their own half, you have to be really on the ball defensively to slow down the Rhinos’ charge.
The first trophy Leeds will be aiming for is the World Club Challenge against Manly in three weeks time. Then they will probably be aiming for the League Leader’s Shield which has narrowly eluded them for the past two seasons. They might also be hopin for a run at the Challenge Cup this year as well, as they have traditionally underperformed in the later stages of that competition. But most of all, they will be looking to make history as the first side to win three Grand Finals in a row on the 10th October. Now matter how good they are, history shows it won’t be easy.
Pros: Err… well, they’re the reigning champions, they have one of (if not the) most talented squads in the country, their academy is a mass production line of talent, they play in front of the largest crowds in the League, and they’ve added a former State of Origin and Test skipper and a World Cup winner to their squad. So yeah, life in Leeds is pretty good right now.
Cons: I think they’ll miss Gareth Ellis’ dynamism, at least to start with, but they’ll replace him eventually. Perhaps the biggest threat to their reign as champions is history itself: no side has ever three-peated as Champion in the Super League era, and the last side to it were Wigan (who of course seven-peated… hmm, just not the same ring to it, is there?). In fact, the only side to do it were that great Wigan side of the late 80s / early 90s.
Coach: Brian McClennan had a tough job following Tony Smith, who had finally turned the Rhinos into winners. McLennan has done pretty well in not only maintaining Smith’s standard but also pushing it on up to another level. Having proven himself as an international coach with New Zealand, McClennan is now proving equally adept at the club game, and look for him to keep the Rhinos at a high level.
Captain: Kevin Sinfield may frustratingly never make it on the international stage, but at Super League level he’s more than capable of leading the Rhinos around the park, as playmaker, kicker and captain.
Key Man: It’s key men for Leeds, as they perform at a much higher level when their midfield triangle of Sinfield, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire has all its points. None of them are what you would call out-and-out playmakers, and they way they all compliment each other means that the organizational load is well balanced between them. When any of them is absent for a period of time (ususally McGuire) then Leeds just don’t look quite so cohesive.
Young ‘un: Take your pick, really. The two that have a real buzz about them are Ben Jones-Bishop and Kallum Watkins, both young backs who have already made their first team debuts. Both of them showed promise in their debut against Celtic Crudaders in the Challenge Cup and look for them to be pushing for 1st team spots sooner rather than later.
Wild Card: I’m not really sure how Matt Diskin will feel about Danny Buderus coming to the Rhonos this season. He’s back at the high standard he was at in 2004 when he was the Harry Sunderland Trophy winner and made his test debut, where he unfortunately got that serious injury. With Buderus having been given the no.9 jersey, it’s up to Diskin to prove he’s still a valuable asset for the Rhinos.
Gains: Danny Buderus, Greg Eastwood, Luke Ambler
Obviously Buderus is the big name here, but Eastwood (even though he looks like he ate all the pies) is no scruff either, what with his World Cup winner’s medal and all.
Losses: Gareth Ellis, Nick Scruton, Clinton Toopi, Ben Kaye, Jordan Tansey, Danny Williams, Michael Haley
Ellis will obviously be a big loss for the Rhinos, but I also think they’ll notice Scruton’s absence as well – he’s become a very effective prop. They’re losing a lot of their academy talent but they simply don’t have the room for all of them. Tansey may well come back from the Sydney Roosters in two years anyway, as his deal is technically a loan.