The Leeds Rhinos last defence of the Super League crown was a complete and utter disaster. Treble winners in 2015, Brian McDermott’s side failed to even make the top eight in 2016. They had to scrap for their very survival in the top flight in amongst the Championship sides and the rest of those who hadn’t cut the yellow stuff in Super League that year.
They breezed through that as you might expect of a side which had swept up everything before it just a year previously, but still few people would have expected the Rhinos to be carrying off an eight Super League title by October of last year. That’s exactly what they did, beating Castleford Tigers 24-6 in the Old Trafford Grand Final at the end of a season which had seen the Tigers dominate the league. Leeds had finished second but they were 10 points adrift of Daryl Powell’s side when the semi-finals got under way. Leeds, as Leeds do, had played the system perfectly.
That eighth Grand Final win was Danny McGuire’s last as a Rhino. The former England half has joined his old team-mate Jamie Peacock’s project at Hull KR and with the retirement also of Rob Burrow McDermott is going to have to find creative spark in midfield from elsewhere. To that end he has picked up former Salford and Warrington man Richie Myler from Catalans Dragons. Myler didn’t have a great spell in the south of France and was part of the side which needed a Million Pound Game victory over Leigh Centurions to secure its Super League status, but he is a player capped six times by England and whom many are tipping to return to that sort of form within the Rhinos’ winning culture.
Another ex-Warrington man joining the Rhinos is hooker Brad Dwyer. Dwyer has made 89 appearances for Warrington and also appeared for Huddersfield Giants in their League Leaders Shield winning year of 2013. At 24 he should be entering the peak years of his career but he may have to be patient at Headingley. He’ll likely be sharing the hooking duties with the excellent Matt Parcell who scored 19 tries in his first season with Leeds and was an integral part of their title winning side after joining from Manly Sea Eagles.
The front row is further boosted by the addition of Nathaniel Peteru from Gold Coast Titans. The 26-year-old has made 23 appearances for the NRL side in a three-season spell since 2015. At 6ft 5 inches tall he should be a real handful for Super League defences and perhaps compliment the always excellent Adam Cuthbertson. Brad Singleton and Mitch Garbutt add further weight to the front row options.
With McGuire gone the captaincy has gone to Kallum Watkins. The England centre has racked up 224 appearances for the Rhinos since 2007 and yet is still only 26 years of age. He has played 25 times for England and is tipped to prosper now that he has the extra responsibility of leading the Leeds side. His appointment has raised a few eyebrows and perhaps caused Ryan Hall to spit out the odd evening meal in disbelief, but if Watkins can continue the form that has helped him score 123 tries for the Rhinos and 12 more for England he could well be one of those who lead by example to make a success of the role.
McDermott will also need to make a decision on who his starting fullback is going to be. Ash Golden has been handed the number one jersey but he will be challenged by 18-year-old Leeds born starlet Jack Walker. The teenager has already played 14 times for Leeds in what was his debut season last term and we will surely see a lot more of him in 2018 even if he doesn’t quite manage to oust Golding every week. Long term he looks the brighter prospect of the two in a position which Leeds have been finding difficult to fill since the departure of Zak Hardaker midway through the disappointment that was Leeds’ 2016 campaign. Given subsequent events involving Hardaker it could be argued that McDermott knew best when agreeing to let the former England fullback go firstly on loan to Penrith Panthers and then finally to Castleford Tigers on a permanent basis.
Leeds help kick-off the whole Super League shebang for 2018 when they face Warrington Wolves at the Halliwell Jones Stadium on February 1, before McGuire makes an early return to the club with Rovers due to visit in Round 2 on February 8. That game will be played at Leeds United’s Elland Road Stadium while work continues on the new stand at Headingley. After that it is a trip to Widnes Vikings before Myler’s old club Catalans Dragons visit on March 2. In Round 5 the Rhinos face a repeat of last year’s semi-final when the much fancied Hull FC come to town while Round 6 sees McDermott’s side travel to St.Helens.
For many there are fears for Leeds in the wake of the departures of McGuire and Burrow in particular. We saw in 2016 how the loss of key players can affect the side when the loss of Kevin Sinfield and Peacock saw the Rhinos sink like the proverbial stone in defence of their title. Expect lessons to have been learned from that and for Leeds to make a stern defence of the Super League trophy. It’s highly likely they will be in the top four come the end of August.