Trying to solve Leeds Rhinos’ spine conundrum with Blake Austin close to a return

Picture by Ed Sykes/ - 23/06/2022 - Rugby League - Betfred Super League Round 16 - St Helens v Leeds Rhinos - The Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens, England - Leeds Rhinos' Blake Austin reacts after a video referee decision awarding St Helens a try

Last week Rohan Smith revealed that both Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin had begun training after injury layoffs.

Though whilst Sezer was writing his name into the history books with a dramatic golden point try to complete a dramatic comeback at the expense of Catalans, Austin was still sat on the sidelines not included in Smith’s original 21-man squad presumably as he wasn’t quite fit to feature.

But another week opens the door for him to return to fitness and push for a place in the side to take on Salford Red Devils on Sunday in a must win game for both sides as they chase a spot in the play-offs and a meeting between arguably the league’s in form teams.

The question is, should he regain his fitness will he be in the 17 against Salford which is a tough conundrum to solve.

Solving this begins at fullback. Smith has a choice between Zak Hardaker and Richie Myler in this role at present and both have been great in the role recently.

Hardaker is Leeds’ best player in terms of tackle busts always pulling himself out of tackles and starting sets in a positive manner for the Rhinos alongside the wingers. He also demonstrated his attacking quality in the final third such as in the build up for Sezer’s match winning try.

Meanwhile, Myler is like a quarterback when at fullback. He creates tries for fun for the outside backs but also his support play enables him to poach plenty of tries. That said, his hat-trick against Catalans from stand-off shows that he can provide something similar when in the halves.

Should he play in the halves surely his partner would have to be Aidan Sezer based on his heroics last week as well as the wider role he played in the comeback including a magnificent kick for Myler’s second.

Both Myler and Sezer are in a position where it seems they cannot be dropped after last week so Austin’s chances hinge on where Myler plays.

I will say one thing: the Rhinos to me look like a more wholistic team with Myler at fullback as it gives the Rhinos the option of a more structured attack as well as a more off the cuff approach which I think it important given the kind of tries Leeds have been limited to in their last two games. Of course, they’ve still scored tries for fun but with Myler at the back when off the cuff rugby fails, structured rugby can take its place.

With Austin and Sezer in the halves, the Rhinos also have a great ability to control the game and the last time they played together they battered Hull FC as both shone.

But what would this mean for Hardaker? Like Sezer and Myler I’d consider him a must in the side especially because of the go forward he brings. Would he take over at centre despite the form of Liam Sutcliffe and Harry Newman.

Ultimately, Sezer, Myler and Hardaker all have to play right now so it oddly comes down to a choice between Austin and Sutcliffe unless Rohan Smith moves Austin on the bench instead of Brad Dwyer though with no Kruise Leeming – an 80 minute hooker in my book – this last option seems unlikely.

At the end of the day, they say don’t change a winning team and I think that will be the approach Smith takes come Sunday which would be harsh on Austin after all it wasn’t that long ago we were asking how would Sezer get back in the side with Austin and Myler doing so well in the halves against the likes of Warrington.

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