In truth, the close season still has quite some time to run. Over a month has passed since the euphoria of Old Trafford, but for the England trio Ryan Hall, Zak Hardaker and Kallum Watkins, who tasted yet more silverware and lofty accolades via the test series win over New Zealand, a well-earned rest has only just begun following last Saturday’s series-deciding victory. But while the more established Rhinos players start the hard yards in the next few weeks, building up to the traditional Boxing Day friendly with Wakefield Wildcats, behind the scenes it will surprise nobody to reveal that preparations for the 2016 season are well under way.
As it happens, even as the Rhinos headed to Old Trafford for the treble-clinching showdown with Wigan Warriors on October 10th, they already had one eye on the future and how they would replace the mammoth presence of the departing trio Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai. An ability to focus on the short, medium and long term simultaneously is the key to much of the Rhinos’ ongoing success, and it is true that Leeds have managed to replace key players seamlessly in the past. You think back to the sizeable holes left in the recent past by players such as Gareth Ellis, Keith Senior, Scott Donald and Brent Webb and you feel a little more confident about the present.
The gaps left at the end of the 2015 season, however, are so cavernous that there is an audible echo and a swirling wind that still races around the empty terraces of Headingley, and will for some time yet. It can’t be known until the cut and thrust of the Super League season meets the emerging buds of Spring whether those replacements already signed are in the true Rhinos mould – it would be unfair to compare anybody with the departing trio directly, given their stature – but certainly it wouldn’t be the Leeds Rhinos if they hadn’t been fully prepared for this eventuality, however reluctantly.
Anthony Mullalley, a 23-year-old prop forward signed from Huddersfield Giants, and Jordan Baldwinson, a 21-year-old front rower and former Rhinos academy graduate, were signed in time for them to play a part from the bench in the end-of-season challenge match with the touring New Zealand side.
The front row has also been bolstered by the signing of Keith Galloway from Wests Tigers, and along with Beau Falloon – a hooker signed from Gold Coast Titans to replace the also departing Paul Aiton – this brings the ‘Aussie’ quota at Headingley to seven. The two new signings join the already well-established Brett Delaney, Joel Moon, Adam Cuthbertson, Mitch Garbutt and Mitch Aichurch in a corner of LS6 that might always complain about the weather, but provides the solid core and focussed mentality that much of the Rhinos repeated success is built on.
Of course, it is not known publically whether the Rhinos have taken advantage of the new ‘marquee signing’ rule, as of yet, but the public courting of Sam Burgess when he called time on his brief Rugby Union career would suggest not, although it is hard to say how credible that pursuit actually was. Nevertheless, the marquee rule – which allows each Super League club to make one signing outside the current salary cap restrictions, but still within strict financial criteria – is a joker you would expect the Rhinos to play at some point, having been one of the clubs that had lobbied for its introduction.
While the Rhinos maintain a home-grown core and insist on personnel who have a mental attitude that embraces the collective ethos of the Club, they are a sporting institution wise to the fundamental marketing strategy of ‘bums on seats’ and the income an ‘individual’ can generate. With high profile names flying the nest, the marquee signing rule is undoubtedly something the Rhinos will keep up their sleeve until the time is right. For now, perhaps they are allowing for the slight change in expectation that the new season inevitably brings.
Other close season moves to secure the future and keep the Rhinos on a continuing path of success, have seen a number of younger players signing lengthy contracts. Brad Singleton was signed on a four year deal back in August, but the last week has seen Jimmy Keinhorst sign a three-year deal – recognition for the 25-year-old second row playing 17 games in 2015 – and Stevie Ward’s stock was elevated significantly when he was awarded a five-year contract.
A succession of injuries has hampered Ward’s pursuit of a regular first team place since he made his Rhinos debut in 2012, not least the knee injury that abruptly halted a fine campaign during the epic victory at Huddersfield Giants in the last game of Super League Super 8s. Ward underwent surgery on that knee injury this week and will miss the start of the 2016 season, but it is testament to the belief that Brian McDermott holds in the 22-year-old that such a long term deal has been offered. It is also typical of the man-management that runs throughout the Club, to make such a gesture at a time when the player himself is laid up in hospital with a leg in plaster and spending lonely hours at a particularly low ebb.
Certainly, if Ward required any further persuasion that McDermott and the Club think the world of him, this came with the coinciding news that his squad number for 2016 would become the illustrious number 13, worn with such honour and dignity since 2000 by one Kevin Sinfield. A comparison in playing styles has been made before, and while many might play it down, there are undoubtedly seeds of Sinfield’s leadership qualities in Ward’s demeanour.
The most immediate target for the Leeds Rhinos is the Boxing Day clash with Wakefield, which is followed swiftly with the now-traditional training camp in Jacksonville, North Florida. Attractive surroundings indeed, and the same climate in which the ambitious treble dream was forged nearly twelve months ago. Another target in addition to the dawn of the regular Super League season, which starts at home to Warrington Wolves on February 4th, is the World Club Challenge encounter with North Queensland Cowboys at Headingley on February 21st.
Before all that though, the Rhinos squad – minus the international trio for the time being – will encounter the bitter frost and vacant greenery of their Kirkstall base and the unforgiving, thankless toil of the start of pre-season training. Far away from the heart-stopping joy of Old Trafford and the crescendo of plaudits afforded following the crushing defeat of Hull KR at Wembley, the machine discreetly clicks into action again, devoid of the glamour and the watching eyes.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, and nobody can accuse the Leeds Rhinos of taking their eye off the ball, despite a gleaming and polished treble-fold succession of distractions. Whatever the future holds, it won’t be for a lack of being equipped, ready and braced for what is to come.