Liana Leota brings a long-term vision to a Leeds Rhinos Netball programme desperate for continuity
When the New Zealand international moved to Manchester in 2016 with her family – her partner Johnny plays rugby union for Sale Sharks – she knew then she wanted to lay foundations that would last a long time. Even after three years playing for Manchester Thunder and then another three with Severn Stars, the 37-year-old was keen that the transition into coaching did not mean uprooting her family.
Leeds Rhinos, similarly, are a franchise desperate for continuity.
The 2023 Vitality Superleague season will be their third in English netball’s top flight and Leota’s appointment means it will be a third head coach in as many years, after two Australians Dan Ryan and Tracey Robinson lasted just a year apiece.
“Roots are 100 per cent important for me,” Leota, who has signed a three-year deal, told The Yorkshire Post
"Especially being given the opportunity to get three years in this job, it gives me time to set a really good foundation and not worry about short-term outcomes, I can really implement my style and the culture I want to build over a period of time.
"That’s huge in any sport because nothing is built in a year. To be able to have three years and time to grow into that role, I’m very lucky and grateful.”
Leota’s transition into coaching has been rapid, but is something she has always been working towards.
Last year she started working as a technical coach for England Roses and was on the bench for them during the recent Commonwealth Games in which the host nation finished fourth.
When the opportunity came up to be Rhinos’ director of rugby before the Games, it presented her with the perfect fit.
“I’d wanted to stay with Severn because I’d been there three years and wanted to continue growing there, however that meant moving my family to Worcester, uprooting them," she says. “So when Leeds came about, 40 minutes up the M62, it meant I would be home more. My family had to come first in the decision.
"The second thing for me was I went and visited Headingley. Connection is a huge thing for me and that one day I spent with them, such good people wanting to do really well, their values aligned with me, the culture I wanted to invest in, and it was a big selling point.
“Being brought up in New Zealand you’re always giving back in some way shape or form, and for me always being in a leadership role as a player, that’s part of your job. You’re always trying to pass on your knowledge or upskill the younger ones in that ‘player-coach’ role. So for me it’s always sat side-by-side.
“For me it’s about getting that balance, now that I’m not playing I can’t action stuff through what I do on the court, so how do I use my words and knowledge to influence other athletes? It’s something I’ve got to learn very quickly.”
Leeds have adapted well to life in English netball’s professional environment, finishing fourth and sixth in their first two seasons. But they have led a nomadic existence, playing their first season behind closed doors in a Covid world, and then having three home venues across Yorkshire in year two to help grow the sport in the region.
For players like Brie Grierson and Vicki Oyesola who have been there from the start, they will be hearing from a third different voice when pre-season training begins in October.
"I needed to keep key players who are committed to this team,” said Leota, who expects to be working with her full squad of 12 players by the start of November, with the season due to begin in early February.
"Brie and Vicki bought into my vision and how I see us playing, they’re willing to listen and learn.
"From recent conversations they’re ready for some consistency above them and having someone there that little bit longer will help them grow as individuals.”
A three-year plan with Leota at the head of it, will also help establish the club as the premier team in the region, off the court as well.
"Because the club is so new, we don’t have homegrown players,” continues Leota. “We’ve got the pathway which we’ve started and players will eventually come through from that, but we’re still growing that platform.
"The longer I can be here to help the fruits of that labour come to fruition will only be helpful.”