The Leeds chief executive admitted to being ‘disappointed’ by results and performances in the first month of the Championship season but insisted the management retained the utmost faith that the club’s youth policy would eventually bear fruit.
Diccon Edwards’s young charges were torn apart by Cornish Pirates on Saturday, a side they would have hoped to have been battling with for early supremacy.
But having been relegated from the Premiership last season, Leeds have lost three of their opening four matches and sit second bottom, and in the relegation play-off zone.
The saving grace of the RFU Championship structure is that the 22-game regular season is only a matter of jostling for position for the end-of-season play-offs, hence Hetherington’s insistence that no-one at Headingley Carnegie is reaching for the panic button.
Leeds need to finish in the top eight to remain in the hunt for fulfilling their goal of bouncing straight back to the Premiership, and Hetherington said: “It was always going to be tough with the fixture list we were faced with and we knew it was going to be a tougher competition than it was when we were last in it three years ago.
“But we’re disappointed in both the results and the performances.
“We have got a very young side, without doubt the youngest in the division.
“And for those young players it is certainly proving a step up in class.
“We still have faith that these players are going to step up.
“If they are good enough they are old enough.
“They need to be tested and ultimately this is the perfect test for them and people will step up to the mark. Yes they are young, but it is a young man’s game.”
Relegation prompted the departure of a number of experienced players in the summer with forwards like Steve Thompson and Marco Wentzel heading for Wasps, and Hendre Fourie leading an exodus of four Premiership regulars to Sale.
Edwards got the job as Neil Back’s successor on the strength of his links to the academy and his desire to blood those players from the outset.
Leeds currently take the field with young players in a host of key positions, from their half-back combination of Craig Hampson, 20, and Joe Ford, 21, to their wingers Curtis Wilson and Ollie Richards, both 19.
The pack has a little more experience in the shape of former England and British Lions hooker Andy Titterrell, 30, and seasoned campaigner Jonathan Pendlebury, 28, but there can be no question that their match-ups in the opening month have reflected an exercise in men against boys.
Twice in the last six seasons Leeds have bounced straight back to the top flight after relegation, while Harlequins, Northampton and Worcester have all kept their recent exiles in the second tier down to the bare minimum.
Saddled with debts of £2m this was never going to be a straightforward promotion campaign for Leeds, especially with the format of the play-off system, but markers can be laid down in the early stages of a season by the so-called favourites, and the only signs coming out of Headingley is that Leeds are there for the taking.
Time remains on their side with February onwards the time to peak, but the extent of the psychological damage done during the 52-10 drubbing at the hands of Pirates at Mennaye Field will only begin to be revealed on Sunday when Leeds host Yorkshire rivals Doncaster.
“It’s a long, tough season and the important thing for us is to be at full strength towards the end of the season,” said Hetherington.
“Doncaster on Sunday will be a big test and one we are looking forward to.
“What’s encouraging is that we have a host of senior players still to come back into the team over the next few weeks: Michael Stephenson, Sean Hohneck, Lachlan Mackay, Mike MacDonald, Danny Paul.
“Once they get back we will be much more competitive.”