Indeed, while the retirement of Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai and Kevin Sinfield’s switch of codes to Union, were the perfect bookends to a Golden Era, if anyone thought that was the end of the story, they would be wise to read up on the laws of momentum. They would also be wise to assess how the Rhinos have made key squad additions over the winter break, and how unprecedented ticket sales and new stadium re-development plans demonstrate that there is unlikely to be a more buoyant institution in world sport at the moment.
After a period of remembrance, sadness and a sense of loss, it hasn’t taken the Rhinos long to pick themselves up and look to the future. It was never going to be any other way. Plans to re-develop both the South Stand and the Main Stand at Headingley Carnegie before 2019 have been announced this week, a timely reminder that both Leeds Rhinos and Yorkshire CCC are currently flushed with unprecedented success, and in both sports, it is hard to identify serious rivals. Nevertheless, standards have been set and there is no sign of them slipping.
The Rhinos also announced record ticket sales this week, with ‘ticketed memberships’ – effectively season ticket holders but with a more ’inclusive’ title – approaching 10,000 for the first time in a decade, and while it is obvious that a treble-winning team will approach the new season with optimism, the unique circumstances label this as a challenge that is bound to trigger uncertainty and psychological imperfections. Such talismanic personalities cannot be easily or quickly replaced, but you wouldn’t bet against the Rhinos defying the odds again.
Much of head coach Brian McDermott’s pre-season recruitment was done while the euphoric cheers from Old Trafford were still hanging in the air. Youngsters Jordan Baldwinson and Anthony Mullally were added to Australian duo Keith Galloway and Beau Falloon in October, while England international Brett Ferres arrived from Huddersfield Giants when the pre-season conditioning was already underway. Inevitably, new partnerships will need to be developed all over the field, with Falloon sharing hooker duties with Rob Burrow after the departure of Paul Aiton, also at the end of last season. Meanwhile Ferres will join the likes of Brett Delaney in the forward pack, although Delaney missed much of pre-season after a knee operation and may join Stevie Ward and Jamie Jones-Buchanan in being absent from the start of the Super League campaign through injury.
Nevertheless, the Rhinos have quietly established a fine blend throughout the squad, with developing youngsters such as Jimmy Keinhorst, Liam Sutcliffe, Stevie Ward and Brad Singleton joining the mental toughness of the seven-strong Australian contingent, and the more experienced pack of established Rhinos players who will be looking to take on added responsibility in 2016, such as Ryan Hall, Carl Ablett, Kallum Watkins, Rob Burrow, Zak Hardaker and Danny McGuire. It all adds up to a formidable playing squad, and one that shows few weaknesses, even allowing for the cavernous holes left by the legendary departing trio. In truth, every player will have to step up to cover for the loss of such influential squad members, but in particular we are looking at specific players to continue their rapid development and build on their own individual successes in the 2015 season.
Stevie Ward and Liam Sutcliffe, who enjoyed fine spells in the side during the historic, trophy-laden campaign, have been earmarked as natural successors in Kevin Sinfield’s leadership role and will use 2016 to grow as players first and foremost, while Aussie prop Adam Cuthbertson enjoyed a superb debut season and will use his impressive off-load and carry stats to try and replicate Peacock’s presence. Meanwhile, Zak Hardaker and Danny McGuire are charged with splitting between them the seemingly impossible job of replacing Sinfield’s two key attributes.
Hardaker enjoyed an incredible 2015, with safe-handling, sound defence and a healthy 13 tries. In 2016 he will look to replicate Sinfield’s unerring kicking accuracy. Such a chief weapon in tight games, Hardaker has spent long hours in pre-season honing his technique, and while he drifted wide with some difficult conversions in the 26-12 friendly win over Bradford Bulls last weekend – missing the target with four of his five attempts – he appears to be the nominated man to place down the kicking tee.
A more indefinable role is that of the Rhinos’ captain. With Sinfield having worn the armband since 2003, appointing a new on-field leader is a decision that has never had to be considered by either of McDermott’s two predecessors as head coach, Tony Smith and Brian McClennan. McDermott has opted for Danny McGuire, the 33-year-old half-back who has shared the most time on the pitch with Sinfield’s unique brand of dignity, enthusiasm and governance. It is perhaps the safest option and certainly the one that offers the most continuity, and in the circumstances, given the scale of the boots which need to be filled, it is an understandable appointment.
A watershed pre-season has followed a familiar pattern for the Rhinos, with the traditional Boxing Day game, the Lazenby Cup encounter with the Hunslet Hawks and the training camp in Florida, but the Rhinos have had to contend with the considerable disruption of moving from their Kirkstall training ground as a result of the Boxing Day floods in Leeds. The squad have trained at nearby Stanningley while the estimated £1million damage has been cleared up and assessed, but you may suspect that nothing is left to chance, and the Rhinos is such a professional outfit that regardless of such unprecedented disturbance, the pre-season build-up has been pretty much seamless.
The action begins for the Rhinos on Thursday February 4th when the Warrington Wolves visit Headingley Carnegie to kick off the new season and the new era. As ever, there is no time to stand still in the early part of the season. Famously, most Rhinos players didn’t get a single weekend to themselves during 2015, with Super League and Challenge Cup appointments arriving relentlessly between February and October. This season sees the additional diversion of the World Club Challenge, and the considerable might of the North Queensland Cowboys visiting Headingley on February 21st, and much of the early weeks will be negotiated with that huge encounter in mind, before life settles down into a more familiar pattern.
For the Rhinos there will be an element of leniency allowed amongst their loyal fan base, if not the unforgiving media, as new faces settle in and old faces are slowly replaced, but certainly momentum is with them. So much pride, goodwill and vibrancy surrounds the Club, and you would be surprised how far such special forces can propel you, notwithstanding the momentum the Rhinos already have. In terms of mass and velocity, you would travel far to find a Club more robustly built than the behemoth that is the Leeds Rhinos, and one that is travelling on more of a smooth and unhindered path. You would certainly prefer to be on board yourself, than be one of those charged with trying to stop them.