Rhinos will finish ninth in Betfred Super League whatever happens in tonight’s final game of the regular season at Salford Red Devils.
After next weekend’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final they will have seven games to maintain their top-flight status for 2019.
Rhinos will face Super League rivals Hull KR, Salford and Widnes Vikings in their second middle-eights campaign in three years, plus the top-four from the Championship. Toronto Wolfpack have already secured their place and are likely to be joined by Toulouse Olympique, London Broncos and Halifax.
Assessing the state of play, Hetherington insisted he is “very confident” about Rhinos’ prospects in the Qualifiers, but stressed they can’t take anything for granted. He said: “Finishing ninth was never the plan, but there is almost inevitably going to be a strong club like ourselves in that position. Last year it was Warrington.
“It is disappointing to find ourselves where we are and after [tonight] we have got seven games coming up against opposition who are all fighting for the prestige of getting into Super League.
“It won’t be easy, but ironically if we don’t suffer any more key injuries against Salford or in the semi-final we could well start the Qualifiers with the strongest-available squad we’ve had all season.
“If you look at the number of players we’ve had missing, from round two or three we’ve had a number of our top-20 missing – and sometimes 11 or 12 out.”
Hetherington reckons, if they get their front-line players on the field, Rhinos’ squad for the middle-eights will be at least as strong as the one which won last year’s Grand Final.
“Everyone should be extremely confident about our prospects for the rest of the season,” he added.
“But we are in a different ball game, a different competition against different teams.
“We are on the back of a season of disappointing results and while personnel on the pitch may not have changed a great deal, other things have changed.
“What we have done in the past in many ways counts for nothing.
“One of the benefits we have is we have got four home games instead of three, but we are going to be taking on the likes of Toronto and Toulouse, teams who have performed extremely well in the Championship.
“Halifax have come with a really solid run and London have been pretty competitive all season so they will be dangerous.
“We certainly won’t be complacent going into the competition. It will give Kevin a big indication of his plans for next year.”
Rhinos have had three games – a defeat at Castleford Tigers, draw with Wakefield Trinity and win over Widnes – under director of rugby Kevin Sinfield and first-team coach James Lowes.
“They have made a positive start,” Hetherington said.
“There’s a real buzz about the place and a confidence.
“We’ve got ground down a bit, partly due to injuries and we’ve suffered some disappointing results with a depleted squad.
“That has affected confidence, but I think Kevin and James Lowes and Rob Burrow and the whole coaching team have come in with a new wave of enthusiasm and that has rubbed off on the players.
“There is a really encouraging approach to everything and greater confidence as well.”
Previous boss Brian McDermott was sacked earlier this month after Leeds’ seventh successive Super League defeat.
Reflecting on that, Hetherington said: “The decision was based on the principle it was the right time to affect a change.
“I said that at the time and I still believe that to be the case. What we’ve got in place with Kevin and James Lowes is a new coaching group which I believe has turned out to be a good outcome, but only time will tell.”
Prop Dom Crosby joined Rhinos last week on loan from Warrington Wolves until the end of the season.
Sinfield has also completed the signing of former Castleford and Hull forward Jordan Thompson from Leigh on a short-term deal.
Hetherington said: “They give us more reinforcements in case we get an injury crisis, because [once the eights start] it is too late to bring someone in].”