It is tough to know where Leeds turn next in their search to fill a role that is fast becoming the impossible job.
Even the Rhinos’ unflappable chief executive Gary Hetherington admitted in Richard Agar’s resignation press conference on Monday morning that “we didn’t expect to have a vacancy” for the head coach role so early in the season.
Agar’s decision to stand down though really came as no surprise to anyone who has watched Leeds this season. His demeanour following what he described as his side’s “capitulation” at Salford was one of a shell-shocked guy who had no idea why his players were not responding to what he was asking them to do.
Repeatedly Agar pointed to the striking gulf in what he was seeing every day in training. And the rudderless performances his team were instead coming up with on match day.
The timing was right, even so early in the season, for a big change. That change had to be the head coach.
Losing five of the first six games at the start of a year that promised so much is a sure-fire way to bring the panic button into view. But this coaching change is no knee-jerk. The players, for whatever reason, are not responding to their coach. The manner of the latest loss at Salford was baffling. No urgency, no leadership, no energy, no heart, no guile.
More on Leeds Rhinos
Players not reaching their potential
The expensively-assembled half-back pairing of two old Aussie mates Blake Austin and Aiden Sezer were bickering on the pitch, missing their plays. The former in Austin eventually subbed. It would be very unfair to blame Agar for any of that. Especially given that in his assistant Sean Long the Rhinos have on their staff one of the greatest British scrum halves to ever play the game.
Indeed it is tough not to feel a degree of sympathy for Agar. “The reality is that I just do not feel I’ve had the required impact on the squad,” he said in his resignation address.
If he is no longer getting a response from his players, it is for the players to explain why.
He arrived in the job almost by default after successfully steadying the ship when Dave Furner cut short his stay. That said, Agar is at pains to point out he was never a “reluctant coach” despite knowing there was always a plan for him to move upstairs at Leeds whenever the time was right.
That short-lived Furner era was an odd one. A ready-made poisoned chalice after the end to the trophy-heavy Brian McDermott dynasty that yielded four Grand Final wins, two Challenge Cup triumphs, a World Club Challenge and a League Leaders’ Shield.
With club legend Kevin Sinfield also back at the club, it was a dynamic of Hetherington-Sinfield-Furner that never really made sense, and ultimately Furner perhaps felt he wasn’t getting the kind of autonomy he wanted to make his imprint on the side.
Richard Agar feeling impact of job
But avoiding relegation and reaching the play-offs consistently is hardly the kind of achievement that Agar would shout from the rooftops at a club like Leeds who dominated Super League between 2007 and 17. “It’s been a very attritional three years,” Agar added. “It’s always been a fight to get through a lot of it. That’s had an effect on me, on my tiredness and my whole life. We all care.”
There was an obvious high, winning the 2020 Challenge Cup Final against Salford. And indeed despite finishing fifth, the Rhinos almost made it to the Grand Final the year after.
But the team assembled by Agar to try and challenge champions St Helens this year already looks miles off. And in standing down the 50-year-old feels he is giving up the best job at the best club around, in the hope it sparks a positive change.
Richard Agar: “The boys need a new voice”
“It’s a great job and there’ll be some great coaches sticking their hands up to do this,” he says.
“I still believe there’s plenty of time for them to achieve this year, but the boys need a new voice.
“All we have to do is get into the playoffs which is highly achievable. They will be reinvigorated by a fresh voice and new ideas.”
The direction of that new voice is now for Hetherington to decide, promising both “an extensive search” and a black canvas from which to begin.
I jokingly asked Brian McDermott at the weekend whether he would consider a return. “Not a chance” said the Featherstone head coach.
Speaking to Mitch Garbutt who won the Grand Final twice with Leeds in 2015 and 2017, the next man should be Danny McGuire. Indeed Garbutt gives McGuire the big sell on this week’s episode of Love Rugby League’s the Big Interview – out on Wednesday.
To me that would be a huge gamble both for the club, and the club legend. McGuire will not have ignored what Sinfield opted into when he went back to try and arrest a Rhinos decline, which in truth was already beginning when he left in 2015.
Editor’s column: Important wins and weeks off