I think it’s safe to say that when Rohan Smith was appointed as Head Coach of Leeds Rhinos, there were more than a few sceptics.
He didn’t appear to fit the bill that Gary Hetherington painted with the Leeds Chief Exec going in search of an “experienced” coach in Super League and the NRL.
However, Smith has been exactly what Leeds needed. He appears to have revitalised the culture at the club and has Leeds playing entertaining rugby. It feels like for the first time since 2015 the Rhinos can claim to be one of the best teams to watch in Super League which was once a hallmark of their most successful sides.
This style of play has resulted in massive wins over Warrington, Hull FC and Wigan most recently but there is more to what Rohan Smith brings to Leeds than just an expressive attack and an improved culture.
In two of those huge wins, Smith has demonstrated an astute tactical understanding and a willingness to tweak things to give the Rhinos a decisive edge.
Let’s return to the start of what I feel has been the Rhinos’ main period of development under Rohan Smith which began with an impressive win away at Warrington.
After a scrappy win over Wakefield in his second game in charge, a trip to Warrington who were in a similar place to the Rhinos at that time felt like a crucial moment in the season for both sides.
The victor would have a chance at the play-offs and you felt would be headed in an upwards trajectory whilst the loser’s season would be more or less over.
Many expected a low scoring game between two teams whose attacks had struggled to fire but that wasn’t the case as Leeds ran riot in a 40-4 win. However, after the first few minutes most people would have predicted that scoreline but in favour of the Wolves as they caused Leeds problems by spreading the ball.
However, Leeds recovered exceptionally well to snuff out these chances. This was the beginning of a calculated risk Smith made in this game. Instead of looking to shut down the Wolves with brilliant line speed as is the assumed route to success in the modern game, Smith had his side bravely hold back, let the play open in front of them and deal with it.
Of course, the Rhinos were nearly punished for making this decision early on but their cover defence bailed them out. Then for the rest of the game Leeds were able to easily absorb any ball movement from the Wolves – the best offloaders in the league – whilst also saving energy which they most certainly used to punch through the Wolves in attack.
This also led to Leeds being able to force the Wolves halves to kick from awkward positions resulting in plenty of 20 metre restarts and seven tackle sets.
The win at Warrington subsequently was the first major glimpse into Rohan Smith’s tactical prowess which for me was utterly confirmed by the win over Wigan.
First thing’s first, Smith made a bold move in moving Harry Newman onto the left and away from his traditional right centre spot. But this worked wonders. It gave Leeds the necessary speed on the left edge to deal with Bevan French.
It also enabled Richie Myler to kick to that corner knowing that Newman and Ash Handley – Leeds’ two fastest players – would be there to shut either Jai Field or French down sapping Wigan’s two best players of energy and starting defensive sets off in the right manner.
In more dangerous areas of the pitch, it meant that any footwork Field and French tried to conjure up as they attacked that area of the pitch would matched. There was also the added benefit of having Liam Sutcliffe subsequently on the right capable of supporting Myler on the last tackle as another kick option which was one of the reasons Smith outlined as being behind the decision.
In another bold move, Smith chose to play Cameron Smith at scrumhalf which was always the plan despite Corey Johnson’s illness as confirmed by Smith who stated that Johnson was due to start on the bench till that illness forced him out of the game.
This move helped balance the team which was lacking props as it gave Leeds another big body but also gave the Rhinos an ability to still move the ball considering Smith’s passing ability. Such an attribute was key to enhancing Leeds’ go forward on a day where there were a lack of props.
Speaking of go forward, Leeds were again – as they were at Warrington – happy to allow Wigan to gain metres, conserving energy used in spreading the defence when Wigan looked to play with width.
It would be then that Leeds would explode forward putting pressure on those involved in set plays resulting in the comedy of errors that ensued from the Warriors.
Thus, Leeds played with a very versatile defence one that was willing to sit back when it made sense to do so as well as one that would explode forward and force mistakes when the time called and often through a pair of lively centres who knew their jobs defensively down to a tee despite playing on the opposite side of the field to where they are comfortable.
To me this indicates just how lucky Leeds are to have Rohan Smith at the helm and bodes well for other big games Leeds could contest as the season pans out, as Smith’s long term project pans out and hopefully leads Leeds back to glory.