The time was right, but Rohan Smith leaves Leeds Rhinos with foundations – and his head held high

Aaron Bower
Rohan Smith Leeds Rhinos Alamy

Leeds Rhinos head coach Rohan Smith

It was Rohan Smith’s final act as Leeds Rhinos coach – but it was a measure of the man and how he goes about his business.

The quotes from Smith in the press release underlined how he was a man of fine principle and a man who understood what it meant to be coach of the Rhinos. In basically admitting that he agreed to step aside so that all focus and energy could go into celebrating the life of Rob Burrow on Friday night, he underlined how he can leave Headingley with his head held high.

Of course, a sold-out crowd would have celebrated Burrow no matter who the head coach was. But if things got ugly on the field, there was always the chance it could threaten to leave a black mark on the whole night, with the pressure on Smith continuing to rise.

And he clearly didn’t want that. The club had to come first and if a change was going to be made at some stage well, it was perhaps best served for all parties for it to be now.

Smith was well within his rights to carry on and try and turn it around against Leigh on Friday, but the club’s mind has clearly been made up. In truth, recent performances have done little to suggest anything but that it is the right time for a change.

And if this season is to avoid fizzling out – it’s easy to forget Leeds are still firmly in play-off contention – then making the change now was arguably the right move. Smith hasn’t quite done enough in recent weeks to show that he deserved a stay of execution: though the problems at Headingley run deeper than simply the identity of the head coach.

But that is a discussion for another day.

Smith perhaps came across as peculiar on occasions in his meetings with the press. But they were the actions of a man fiercely defensive of his players, and who had the backing and respect of them no matter what. There was no suggestion he ever lost the dressing room.

In a world where some coaches can be far worse than simply peculiar, Smith didn’t go out of his way to make life difficult for the media. Again, it was a measure of the man: he would defend his players, and if that meant refusing to answer something, he would. But he understood the game, and the way things worked, and was largely good to deal with for two years.

Even after disappointing defeats, when Smith was reiterating his belief in his players and the plan: he wasn’t doing it because he was looking the other way at the reality of the situation – he was doing it to protect his players.

The perception whenever a club changes a head coach is that the next man in line has an almighty mess to clear up before they can get to work on putting their own philosophies in place. Not here.

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Leeds have a squad which is capable of far more than what it is currently producing which, in some ways, is the reason Smith has lost his job. He was backed in the off-season, and that team is better than seventh in Super League, many would argue.

But the new man inherits a group of hugely talented players, and a club where the foundations have been laid for a more prosperous future.

We can debate Smith’s beliefs and philosophies, but one thing he was firm in his belief of was the development of young players. A look at that Rhinos squad his successor inherits underlines that. There are talented youngsters who have had exposure to Super League rugby that will stand them and the club in great stead all being well over the coming years.

Smith has laid the foundations for someone else to build upon. Yes, he ultimately fell short in terms of delivering success this season but if you look at that Leeds squad, there is the potential for the next coach to come in and hit the ground running. It needs some work, but not as much as other jobs have needed in the past.

And of course, Smith leaves Leeds with a handful of happy memories. Most Rhinos fans would point to that summer of 2022, when they were waltzing their way back to a Grand Final, as some of the most fond memories they have in recent years. That was largely down to the turnaround Smith helped produce.

Yes, it didn’t work out following that. Far from it, in fact – which is why, as mentioned, the time for a change was right.

But maybe, in the years ahead, if Leeds are back dining at Super League’s top table, there will be a moment to look back and reflect at the foundations Smith laid and the way he stuck to his guns until the very end and give a deserved nod.

He is one of the game’s good guys, and hopefully, he is back in the game again soon. The time was right for a parting of the ways at Headingley: but there’s a sensible argument that he leaves the Rhinos in a better state than when he arrived.


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