Leeds Rhinos: Rohan Smith needs patience to emulate uncle Tony
The Leeds Rhinos job remains one of the most prized coaching roles in the game but has fast become a poisoned chalice.
Next in line to attempt a complete rebuild of this proud, all-conquering West Yorkshire club, is the 40-year-old nephew of one of the Rhinos coaching greats.
If the unproven Rohan Smith can raise the Rhinos back to anywhere near the levels achieved by uncle Tony, then he will be on a very strong and popular path.
But this rebuild will take time, and patience, and chief executive Gary Hetherington knows he simply has to have got this appointment right.
Since the 2018 departure of head coach Brian McDermott after seven-straight defeats in their ill-fated title defence, the fallen Super League giants have descended into an absolute mess.
The returning club favourite Dave Furner looked like being a shrewd long-term replacement but since his swift Headingley retreat there has been little evidence of any kind of direction, with a succession of underwhelming recruits and a slowing of the proud Academy conveyor belt that has produced so many iconic homegrown stars to fire Leeds to their record eight Grand Final wins.
When a beleaguered Richard Agar finally admitted he had run out of ways to convince his star-studded squad to produce the goods for him, the once mighty Rhinos looked as meek as I have ever seen them in my 30-odd years watching. And it was no real surprise that the likes of Shaun Wane and Steve McNamara were not interested in the vacancy.
I’ve spoken to an array of former players and staff about the problems at Leeds. And the word that keeps coming up is culture. It’s an easy word to chuck about without forensic knowledge of the inside workings of a Super League club, but you don’t need a degree in investigative journalism to see there has been something badly wrong for some time. Even their 2017 Grand Final win was against the odds after an awful campaign in 2016. That 2015 treble-winning season, and the start of the big-name exodus was the clear beginning of the decline, not withstanding that epic triumph two years later.
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When Kevin Sinfield was tempted back to the club in 2018 it was to fix what he told me at the time was a “rot” that had set in at the club. He wanted a complete rebuild, to refresh staff and players and get the club back into a professionally run machine that he had seen move alarmingly in the opposite direction since his retirement.
But that rebuild was only ever half completed – personnel were moved out, but never adequately replaced. With those departures came the loss of “winning behaviours” that Brad Singleton talks about on this week’s Love Rugby League podcast. And in truth, as tough as it is to say it, Sinfield probably has to take some responsibility for what has happened.
The former players I speak to all recall fondly those halcyon days, but worryingly none are really surprised by the fall from grace. And that is alarming. Singleton says “I left when I did because I didn’t think the culture was getting the best out of me.” He left after McDermott left. This is a hugely telling statement.
I’ve chatted a bit with Agar since his departure last month and he is hurting badly. Hurting and completely confused as to what more he could have done to get things right on the pitch.
Untried, untested and carrying the copes of a city
So next in is Rohan Smith, untried, untested and carrying the hopes of a city. He is massively well regarded by those who have worked with him, including Leeds Academy coach Chev Walker who spent time with Smith at Bradford and regards him as “demanding and inspiring”.
It’s definitely a huge punt by Hetherington, but that is not to say it won’t work out.
Yet while affording the new man time, the fans – who would no doubt have been craving a big-name appointment – must also accept a reality check and drastically lower the feverish expectation levels that the silverware-heavy last two decades have kept raised.
There may never be a Leeds side like that 2015 team again but success can return with patience and stability.
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