Sinfield to continue Leeds evolution of culture

Rob Conlon

It has long been forgotten, you suspect, but one of Leeds Rhinos’ earliest victories of significance under Brian McDermott came against Castleford Tigers.

Sure, there have been plenty of trophies, semi-finals and impossible comebacks in the years since, but standing on the terrace at Wheldon Road that afternoon in May 2011 was one of those golden occasions as a supporter when there is a palpable feeling that the players and fans are united as a force to be reckoned with.

McDermott, as would be a theme throughout his eight years in charge of Leeds, was already under pressure as head coach. The Rhinos had lost five of their opening 13 fixtures of his maiden campaign, conceding an alarming number of points in the process.

For the first time, however, McDermott was able to call upon the services of both Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock, with the duo back from respective knee reconstructions which had wrecked Leeds’ prospects for silverware the previous season and continued to hurt the club months into 2011.

McGuire appeared in a cameo off the bench in the previous week’s win over Crusaders, but Peacock was making his comeback on the ground where he had suffered the original injury which had ruled him out of the Challenge Cup final and beyond. Both started on the bench, but both would play key roles in a dominant Leeds win.

First, there was time for Richard Silverwood to make himself the pantomime villain, ruling out a Castleford try for a dubious Rangi Chase forward pass. Chase, in the form which saw him named Man of Steel that season, would later have his name sung by the Leeds fans as he failed to find touch from a penalty around 20 metres in from the sideline. It really was one of those afternoons.

And midway through the second half, with Leeds leading 18-0, the moment came. Peacock drove the ball forward and offloaded to McGuire in support. The stand-off rounded his former team-mate and good friend Richie Mathers to dot down. It was a brilliant try, and one which suggested they had never been away.

Given the final score ended 48-6, the try was largely irrelevant, but what came immediately afterwards mattered. McGuire regained his feet and erupted in emotion, punching the air as if it were the seven months of gruelling, mind-numbing rehab he had just been forced to put his body through. McGuire was back. Peacock was back. Leeds were back.

Anyone that has read Fever Pitch will have taken a guilty solace in recognising that other sports fans track their lives according to the achievements – or lack thereof – of the team they support. Since that afternoon, the only constants in my life have been a batshit Leeds United, a Brian McDermott-coached Leeds Rhinos and any record made by Alex Turner – another Nick Hornby classic, High Fidelity, can explain that one.

It’s because of that I know I first moved down to university in Nottingham on the week of September 28, 2012; that was the night I watched Leeds beat Wigan in the play-off semi-finals in a pub becoming increasingly angry that the golf(?!) had been switched over.

It’s because of that I know the birthday of an old friend from high school who I’ve not spoken to for years is on February 4; that was the night Leeds beat Canterbury Bulldogs to win their first World Club Challenge.

It’s because of that I know my sister’s 18th birthday party was on October 16, 2004; that was the night Leeds beat Bradford to win their first Super League grand final and I first heard an Arctic Monkeys song. That really is an important one.

Remembering family birthdays thanks to Danny McGuire tries or Alex Turner riffs is not a trait I’m particularly proud of; although I would like to think it’s a testament to their respective talents rather than a damning indictment of my priorities.

But you can start to imagine how strange it felt to stand on the terraces at Wheldon Road – a place I will always associate with a win which in turn means I know the date my mum threw a party for the Royal Wedding between William and Kate (don’t ask) – without one of those constants: Brian McDermott.

Perhaps it’s too simplistic, but there is an argument to be made that Leeds’ rivalry with Castleford goes a long way to defining McDermott’s time in charge of the club; it would have felt cruelly befitting if his final match in charge was the 42-10 defeat the Rhinos suffered on Sunday.

Bradford Bulls were still Leeds’ main local rivals when McDermott was first appointed and those early results against Castleford – who were still coached by Terry Matterson – reflect both clubs’ status at the time. In his first four years in charge, Leeds played Castleford on 11 occasions. The Tigers won just once. The Rhinos were by far the dominant side, winning nine, including the Challenge Cup semi-final in 2012 and 2014 final.

By the time Daryl Powell was able to mould the side, it was a much different story. Since 2015, the two sides have met 12 times, with Castleford winning 10 of those clashes.

A closer look at those latter results sums up the infuriating inconsistency of McDermott’s Leeds. The Tigers triumphed 52-12 at Headingley in 2016 and inflicted a record-breaking 66-10 defeat on the Rhinos a year later. And yet it was still Leeds who came out on top when the two sides met in the Grand Final that season; they may have shown a worrying fragility on numerous occasions, but they knew how to produce a big performance on the biggest stage better than any other team.

Leeds’ success over the past 15 years has been a direct result of the unique culture they have managed to build in that time. Evolution, not revolution, has served the Rhinos well in that time, and the worry when McDermott was sacked was that such a culture could be under threat if someone unfamiliar with the inner workings of the club was appointed.

Kevin Sinfield’s appointment as director of rugby has served as a comfort blanket for such concerns, but it has taken him all of three days to recognise that some of those standards he played a huge part in setting have slipped.

Choosing his words noticeably carefully, Sinfield commented in his post-match press conference after the heavy defeat at Castleford: “There is some stuff off the field we need to change. I don’t want to say too much, but we just need to make some small changes to how we operate and how we go about stuff. We’ll be far better for it when we do it.”

Likewise, one of the worries about Sinfield was that he would be too loyal to a squad still containing many friends with whom he won the Treble in 2015 and enjoyed so many trophy-laden years. There was an element of that sentiment on Sunday when he said: “I believe there’s enough talent in that group to make a fist of things.” But then there was equally a steely threat when he checked himself a moment later: “At least until the end of the year.”

Changes are afoot at Leeds over the coming months, the challenge for Sinfield is to oversee them in much the same way he oversaw that win over Castleford all those years ago back in 2011: quietly but efficiently in the background, diligently ensuring the players were in the right pace to be successful.

If he does so half as effectively as he did on and off the field as a player, the future of the club is in good hands.