THE man who could perhaps benefit most from Kevin Sinfield’s surprise appointment as Leeds Rhinos director of rugby is Jordan Lilley, the talented young half-back who admits losing confidence under predecessor Brian McDermott.
One of Sinfield’s first actions after taking over last week was to bring the 21-year-old in from the cold, straight into his starting line-up for Sunday’s game at Castleford Tigers.
It was a timely boost for a player who, for reasons that perplexed many, had been on the periphery for so long with the struggling Super League champions.
Of course, next year will bring an added challenge for Lilley after yesterday’s announcement that Tongan World Cup half-back Tuimoala Lolohea will be arriving at Headingley on a three-year contract, providing further competition for places.
After his debut in 2015, it was always thought Lilley would, ironically, be the long-term successor to legendary half-back Sinfield who left the club at the end of that treble-winning campaign.
Granted, Lilley played the majority of the next season, including the World Club Challenge against Johnathan Thurston’s North Queensland Cowboys, when Danny McGuire suffered a long-term injury.
Kev helped me develop as a player with my kicking game and things like that. So, to have him back is a real bonus in terms of being able to try and improve my game.Jordan Lilley
However, he was largely unused in 2017 when McDermott mainly utilised centre Joel Moon as a stand-off instead.
Still, when the Leeds-born player signed a new three-year deal in July last year most people presumed the homegrown Academy product would be given a chance to take control of the side – only for him to be overlooked again.
Indeed, in the 12 months since agreeing that contract Lilley was picked just nine times by McDermott, who sent him on loan to Leigh Centurions in March and did not select him this campaign until the end of May.
There were just two more appearances thereafter, but Sinfield brought him in for that first game in charge – moving Moon back to centre – citing he felt the youngster deserved a chance.
Although it did not reap immediate dividends with Leeds suffering an eighth successive league defeat, losing 42-10 against a Castleford side inspired by teenage half-back Jake Trueman, it certainly did wonders for Lilley’s self-belief.
Speaking about his lack of first-team action previously, he told The Yorkshire Post: “Obviously it was frustrating.
“But the coach is in charge and the coach picks the team. I appreciate that Mac picked what he thought was the best team. That’s fair play on all accounts.
“But it was nice the faith put in me by Kev, to put me in straight away for a start even knowing I’d not played for quite a long time.
“It gives me confidence and I just need to get that confidence back as at the minute I’m not really playing with much of it; I’m at kind of a low point with the confidence on the pitch.
“I just need to be out there so I can start those combinations and practice leading the team around.
“A great example is Jake Trueman; at times he may not have had great games, but Daryl Powell stuck by him, kept him in and look at him now. He’s flying. I thought he was exceptional against us.
“With Luke Gale not being in he’s had his chance and developed week-in, week-out under Daryl Powell. Hopefully I can do what they’re doing.”
Lilley, whose kicking and distribution qualities were obvious as soon as he emerged through Rhinos’ academy, is relishing the chance to hone his talent under Sinfield’s watchful eye.
“I was really pleased when I found out Kev was coming in,” he said.
“I played with him in 2015 and he’d been here a long time before that so I’d worked with him.
“Kev helped me develop as a player with my kicking game and things like that. So, to have him back is a real bonus in terms of being able to try and improve my game.
“Obviously, over the last few years I haven’t been out on the field to be able to practise that.
“Hopefully I play again against Wakefield on Friday, but if not I’ll just keep working hard and trying to get into the team.”
Friday’s visit from Wakefield is now a gargantuan game in Leeds’s campaign. With just three games remaining before the split they desperately require a victory to bolster their hopes of pulling out of the bottom four.
Lilley, who spent time on loan at Bradford Bulls last term, conceded: “Every game is massive the way we are at the minute.
“And the teams below us are winning as well, so it’s putting us under a lot of pressure.
“But we probably had just two days under Kev and Jimmy (Lowes), Rob (Burrow) and Chev (Walker) last week, so it’s nice this week to sit down and have a full week’s training with them.
“We weren’t quite at the races against Cas, but there was glimpses that we’re up there.
“To defend two sets on our line and not concede was a real positive going into the break when we were 16-10 down. Now we can implement more things and build on that against Wakefield.”