It’s now six games at the helm of the Rhinos for Rohan Smith – And these first 480 minutes of rugby have given Leeds fans a clear indication of what to expect as the Smith era progresses.
Simply put – The Mentality. Whilst I adore Richard Agar for the work he did in stabilising and lifting the club from the abyss post Golden Generation, neither he nor the team he set out inspired fear in their opponents. Despite improvements being made under Agar, as a fanbase we routinely prepped ourselves to losses against the title challengers such as Wigan, St Helens and Catalans. 40 points conceded if we were lucky.
Now, this might sound strange, given we conceded 42 to Saints recently – But we fought. Saints, quite frankly, are still a better team on paper. But until Zane Tetevano and James Bentley finally remembered that they hadn’t lost all sense of discipline and needed their weekly ten in the bin, we were well in it. There was a fire and desire in the tackles and runs that either waned quickly or simply wasn’t there under Agar. A level of belief that we could actually take something back over the Pennines, despite the odds being heavily against us from the start.
A key reason for this, I feel, is the omission of certain players. Who had the most constant rumours surrounding them? Players like Alex Mellor, Jack Broadbent, and Brad Dwyer. Mellor departed to Cas immediately, Broadbent on loan and Dwyer omitted from matchday squads.
Smith has made it clear that only the players committed to the shirt will pull it on. He’s also shown that he’s not willing to take any backlash from those who claim the missing players would have made the difference in a defeat.
That, ladies and gentleman, is a leader. The squad knowing the coach is committed, and vice versa. That builds a more settled and unified squad. Which breeds confidence in one another, making it Smith’s biggest achievement after six games.
Well… It’s the consistent inconsistency!
It’s the obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a reason. Our last two wins saw us score 62 against Hull FC and 40 against Warrington. Our last two defeats saw us concede 42 against Saints and 30 against Huddersfield.
The frustration that this causes is quite simply ridiculous.
In the victories we see a team in full swing – A dominant Kruise Leeming at dummy half, who did everything with confidence and sent the opposition backwards without moving; a Blake Austin who looks like he could dance his way to the glitterball trophy, and a Mikolaj Oledzki who could charge through a brick wall to score.
In the defeats, we see the players trying to do that. We see them working as hard as possible, but the final play kicks are just coming up too long or too short. Wingers ending up in touch several times a game. Things that work in victories, but don’t work in games we are behind in.
But why is that?
Is it because Smith’s tactics require momentum or space or time that better teams don’t allow us to have? Is it because, quite simply, a number of the players aren’t good enough?
Personally, I believe that it’s between the two. The NRL pitches are bigger (Remember Rhyse Martin knocking his first kick off as a Rhinos Player into the stratosphere) and maybe Smith is still adapting to that. I do also think that some players aren’t at a standard for the first team should we want to compete for honours… But that’s a tale for another day.
So, where are we six games into the Smith tenure? As results would suggest it has been a mixture of everything, with three wins and three losses thus far.
However, that doesn’t tell the story of the early signs of development that the team have displayed under his leadership. The gameplan is much clearer and doesn’t wane, even in the latter stages of matches in which we’re losing and will lose. We’re forging an identity again, something we’ve lacked ever since the last remaining members of the Golden Generation departed after our 2017 Super League triumph. An influx of new players, some who made it, some who didn’t. Not to forget early recruitment, as, with Zak Hardaker, we’ve reached a point where it goes without saying: A fit and disciplined Zak Hardaker is one of the, if not, THE best player in Super League. He’s just had his second child with his partner, so hopefully we have a settled Zak who doesn’t do anything silly, with so much to fight for in comparison to his infamous departure all those years ago. Frankly, Mellor leaving has been a good thing – As touched upon earlier, it gives the squad a more settled feeling amongst the players. It also gives the exciting Morgan Gannon a much clearer path to first team selection, something most if not all Rhinos fans want to see.
So, where from here?
This season – Safety. That may seem a little bit of an underwhelming goal but there have been some weeks when getting dragged down there has looked a distinct possibility. Beat Toulouse in France and secure safety, that’s the first aim. Next season is difficult to predict, truthfully. 2024 we should be challenging without doubt; Smith’s second full season gives him more than enough time to assess the squad, sign and sell as needed and nail the specifics of his gameplan for every opponent we face. Next season is difficult to predict though, but I’ll choose to be positive. The players will have got to grips fully with Rohan’s system, he’ll recruit well and give Rhyse a new deal (why that’s not been done mystifies me), and we’ll end up comfortably in the play-offs next season.
I firmly believe that this team is going places. I’ve seen enough to know the difference Smith is having on and off the pitch, and if he can recruit well and find the consistency against teams of all calibre, he will be a success.
We will win Super League titles under Rohan Smith. I think 2025 will be that year. But it all depends what he can get from the boys upstairs as well as those on the field. If the board backs Rohan, he’ll repay them with silverware. Of that, I’m in no doubt.