How Leeds Rhinos have revamped their attack to create an eye-catching style

Aaron Bower
Leeds Rhinos

Leeds Rhinos celebrate an Ash Handley try in Round 1 against Salford Red Devils in Round 1 - Alamy

Keen observers to the detail of Super League will have noticed that there are more than one or two differences to the way Leeds Rhinos are approaching their play this season.

Love Rugby League has already touched upon how the Rhinos have emerged as one of the early entertainers in Super League, headlined by some of the wonderful tries they have scored. Few, if any, have been better than the complete team effort that was finished by Ash Handley in last weekend’s game against Catalans Dragons.

Incidentally, the breakdown of that try and how it was scored can be viewed here and below. But there are so many more nuances to this approach by Rohan Smith and his side than simply chancing their arm and this week, Love Rugby League spoke to the Leeds Rhinos coach about a plan that was created through both meticulous planning and an unlikely opportunity.

With Richie Myler, Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer all leaving Leeds in the off-season, the Rhinos had an opportunity to start with a near-blank canvas. Austin and Sezer, it was often argued, were far too similar and there was no disparity in style between Leeds’ two first-choice half-backs and Smith wanted to put that right. Matt Frawley was immediately identified as a target, as was Lachlan Miller at fullback.

“I’ve spoken about the recruitment process in previous interviews,” Smith explains. “We were looking for a definite number seven who wanted to have his hands on the ball, manage the game and think ahead. Then a fullback came along in Lachlan who had some real ball carrying strike, some threat and speed and that was a big part of how we wanted to look.”

So that part of the attacking approach was deliberate. A scrum-half who could manage a game, and a fullback with much more threat in back-field – something we have already seen glimpses of from both Frawley and Miller in the early weeks of 2024. But then, as pre-season began to get underway, arose the chance to sign Salford duo Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers.

Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers Leeds Rhinos
The signings of Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers completed Smith’s spine.

For Smith, it completed the puzzle.

“When Ackers and Croft became available.. they just fit what we had already assembled,” he says. “Brodie is a definite six; he’s not a game-managing seven, even though he may have started out like that in the NRL. But here, in England, he’s a brilliant six and he can manage the game. The pieces fit together for us, but the initial recruitment was certainly intentional and now we’ve got a framework and a system we believe in.”

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Leeds’ approach can sometimes look off-the-cuff – maybe even messy, you could argue. The benefit of that is it enables them to be more unpredictable, as Handley’s try at Hull KR perhaps justified following an audacious cross-field kick from Croft. But Smith insists that is very much a thought-out process, not something the players do on the hoof – and assistant coach Scott Grix plays a key role.

Smith explains: “I think the way that we play, because we don’t work to a certain point and play from there – we play a lot less of that type of footy than most clubs – there’s a lot of moving parts.

“At times it can look a bit more disjointed to the naked eye than other clubs I think, but at times you can create opportunities out of not a lot. The best way to practice that is in-game but I don’t think we’ve hit anywhere near where we want to be. We’ve still posed a lot of attacking threat, and Grixy and that spine are having way more rugby league chats than you’d realise every day. It’s all a work in progress though, still.”

We often think of the spine as fullback, two half-backs and hooker. But in the modern era there is a fifth component to the spine: the loose-forward. Especially when your man in that position has the ability of captain Cameron Smith, underlined by his stupendous pass that led to Handley’s try last week.

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“I think Cam is a very consistent player,” Smith says of his captain. “I’m not sure if he’s playing any better than he did at times last year, but he’s thriving in that leadership role for sure. He’s getting to learn a lot about his new team-mates and the identity we’re trying to build.

“He’s a key part of that behind the scenes. He’s played good solid footy so far, he had to nearly go the distance last week and play the full game but he’s had a really heavy workload. His composure to come up with the right play in that circumstance, there’s almost too many options there but he chose the one that worked for us before.

“He’s done that type of pass in the past, he’s got great vision and a great skill-set for a middle player, and he’s started the season in solid form.”

Leeds head to Leigh on Friday night looking for a third win in four Super League games. They have been far from perfect, but they are already establishing a reputation as a team well worth watching.

It may appear like that’s happened by chance, but it is clear from speaking to Smith that the rebuild of his entire spine in the winter was to produce an approach like this: unpredictable, expansive and easy on the eye. All the parts appear to be complimenting each other to perfection so far.

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