Leeds Rhinos boss Rohan Smith admits surprise after being left in dark over Blake Austin exit
The Australian has joined the relegation-threatened Tigers on loan for the remainder of the Super League season, signalling the end of his time at Headingley after failing to agree a new contract for 2024.
Austin's future had been the subject of intense speculation with the half-back making it clear that his preference was to extend his stay with the Rhinos.
However, no contract was forthcoming and the 32-year-old was given the green light by Headingley officials to join Castleford's fight for survival.
Smith has confirmed that Austin instigated the move but could not explain the abrupt nature of the former Warrington Wolves star's departure.
“It was a bit of a surprise to start with,” said Smith.
“I went to bed somewhere between 10.30pm and 11:00pm and when I started my walk this morning, I turned my phone back on and had a message saying that it was likely that a deal had been done with Cas.
“Through the early parts of this morning that was confirmed. It came as a bit of a surprise, for sure.
“I actually don’t know all of the process that had happened there. But at this point in time, close to the transfer deadline, if a decision had been made, I was supportive of that once I was briefed on it this morning.
“You’d have to ask Blake why he’s moved, that’s not for me to discuss. I’ve played no part in the negotiations and by the time I engaged, it was well down the path.”
Austin – an arrival from Warrington ahead of the 2022 season – appeared to be on his way to earning a new deal after winning the Super League Player of the Month for June.
Smith has insisted the situation was still live when Austin opted to leave the Rhinos.
"I hadn't explicitly told him that he wouldn't be getting a contract," added Smith.
"I'm not aware of the exact reason for the timing of it but do understand that it's difficult for players when they're off contract and don't always receive the offer they might want or in some cases have to wait for the offer to potentially come through. That waiting game can be difficult for players.
"All of us as coaches and players have been in that position at some point and it's difficult. I appreciate the difficult nature of that."
As Austin continues his search for a new club for next season and beyond, Smith has confirmed that there is no way back for him at Leeds.
"I think that's safe to say," he said.
Austin's hasty exit leaves Smith with a major headache in the spine after he confirmed Richie Myler is facing an extended period on the sidelines with a foot injury.
The Rhinos have the scope to bring in an overseas player after freeing up a quota space but Smith admits they face a race against time ahead of Friday's transfer deadline.
“It’s come at the very last minute," he said.
"I haven’t considered making a change to our roster, quota spots had been filled and there had been no intention to change.
“But now the circumstance of Richie’s injury and Blake’s movement, we’re going to have a quick look and see what’s available.”
Leeds have made only one confirmed signing for 2024 in Catalans Dragons forward Mickael Goudemand and are set to lose promising prop Sam Walters among others, while they have reportedly missed out on several targets.
Frustration is building among the fans but Smith will not be rushed into "impulsive signings".
"There's still lots of time for further additions," he said.
"As I've stated previously, we've got a lot of young players that are improving so some of the recruitment has already been done.
"We're aware there are some spaces to add to in time but it's very important that we make the right choices there to support the growth of our young players.
"To make impulsive signings to appease other people is not the way we'll be going about it. In time, we'll have other announcements I don't doubt.
"There will always be players that clubs miss out on – that's just part of the process – but we haven't missed on many. There has been one or two only.
"We'll look everywhere, we'll keep looking and I'm confident we'll end up with the right balance in our squad next year to compete."