Leeds Rhinos endure hits and misses as they strive to get recruitment balance right, admits Gary Hetherington

LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington accepts the club’s recruitment success has been “mixed” since 2015 but stands by their policy of advancing academy products before entering the transfer market.

HIT: Leeds Rhinos' Trent Merrin. Picture by Ash Allen/SWpix.co

The eight-time Super League champions are in the midst of a relegation battle for the third time in four years with another key game looming against Hull FC on Sunday.

It seems an eternity ago rather than 2015 that Rhinos celebrated an historic Treble success.

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Recruitment and retention decisions since then have come under scrutiny as people look to establish the root cause of what has caused Leeds to struggle for much of the period since.

IN FOR THE LONG HAUL: Gary Hetherington , left and Leeds Rhinos' director of rugby, Kevin Sinfield. Picture Tony Johnson.

“It’s important to remember our policy over the last 20 years is we only recruit players for the club in positions we’ve not developed our own,” said Hetherington, with Rhinos’ famous Golden Generation of Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow et al having hailed from their youth system.

“Our priority has always been to develop our own players and when we haven’t done that, that’s when we recruit externally.

“Over the past three seasons players like Ashton Golding – even though he is not playing much this year – Jack Walker, Harry Newman, Ash Handley, Mikolaj Oledski and Cameron Smith have all emerged from our Academy as regular Super League players in our squad.

“We’ve recruited from other Super League clubs – Richie Myler, Brad Dwyer, Anthony Mullally and Dom Crosby – and from the NRL – Keith Galloway, Mitch Garbutt, Matt Parcell and Nate Peteru – before this season with Trent Merrin, Tui Lolohea and Konrad Hurrell.

UP-AND-COMING: Leeds Rhinos' academy product, Jack Walker. Picture: Isabel Pearce/SWpix.com

“The judgement and assessment of all of these is in the eye of the beholder. No doubt the crop of young players have all done very well while some of our experienced players have had mixed results. Recruitment? We’ve had mixed results but I’d defend it.”

There are, of course, some that Hetherington has missed off that list, not least Australian hooker Beau Falloon, who flopped badly in 2016.

His replacement James Segeyaro impressed on his arrival from the NRL – helping Rhinos stave off relegation – but then controversially reneged on his contract and never returned in 2017.

Tonga stand-off Lolohea, meanwhile, has been loaned out to Salford Red Devils midway through his debut campaign while the luckless Galloway suffered a wretched time with injuries before being forced into retirement in February last year.

Leeds Rhinos' chief executive, Gary Hetherington. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

The 2015 departure of legendary trio Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai would always cause issues – “you don’t replace that longevity of 35 years’ club service” – but Hetherington feels it was handled as well as possible.

“The idea was for people like Stevie Ward, Kallum Watkins, Ryan Hall and Joel Moon to really step up into that leadership role and at the same time recruit other quality players who could all come and add value,” he said.

“Brett Ferres arrived (from Huddersfield Giants) fresh from playing all three England Tests at the end of the previous season, while Keith Galloway was an experienced NRL player and the type that Jamie Peacock was. Anthony Mullally was an up-and-coming front-rower replacing Kylie Leuluai.

“But we always knew that transition would take some time.”

Leeds Rhinos' Tui Lolohea has been loaned out to Super League rivals Salford Red Devils in his first season in England. Picture: PA.

After 2015, there is an argument too much expectancy was put on the likes of emerging Academy products such as Jordan Lilley, Liam Sutcliffe and Golding, with Hetherington conceding: “I agree there was a lot of expectancy on people like Lilley, Sutcliffe and Goulding.

“They don’t all come through the way we hope but it is always our policy that we give our players that first shot.

“No doubt that will remain our policy as that’s very much what’s in the mind of (director of rugby) Kevin Sinfield.

“It’s a judgement call. Just like we made a judgement call back in 2002 with that group of young players we all know it’s something that does take time.”

Sinfield’s return as director of rugby is seen, by Hetherington, as being a crucial part of now smoothing out the next chapter in the club’s history.

The chief executive – who has been in charge since 1996 – conceded: “That (Grand Final) success in 2017 may well have camouflaged some inherent problems that went undetected.

“When Kevin did come back last July he did say he noticed a fall-off in standards in quite a number of areas of the organisation. Kevin’s reintroduction, having been away for about two-and-a-half years, started the process of rebuilding.”

Hetherington admitted the stand-off role has remained a “conundrum” ever since former England captain Sinfield left in 2015.

Admittedly, the recent signing of Australian Robert Lui from Salford Red Devils should finally solve that.

Hetherington added: “The time when Kevin Sinfield was occupying it, Liam Sutcliffe was emerging as the real contender for that position.

“Indeed, for part of the time, he kept Kevin out of the team such was his talent and promise.

“He’s occupied that role and then Joel Moon had a lot of success playing at number six.

“But it’s fair to say we have never had a consistent half-back to go alongside the scrum-half.”

Instead, Sutcliffe, 24, now finds himself largely playing in the second-row while Lilley - seen as the club’s scrum-half for years to come - has left altogether.

Rhinos announced a new three-year deal with him in July 2017 but he barely figured last season and has spent this term on loan at Bradford Bulls.

Lilley, 22, has now signed permanently with the Championship club until the end of 2021.

“Jordan Lilley - a young player coming through our system - was earmarked to be Danny McGuire’s successor,” added Hetherington.

“However, the responsibilities of being the No1 half-back in the club is a very heavy one.

“It’s not like being a prop forward or back-rower where there’s six at any time. “The half back and hookers are two critical positions and if the club wants to remain successful it has to have someone pretty good in that position.

“Jordan Lilley was earmarked but of course there is no certainty.

“It was felt at the time (end of 2017) he wasn’t ready to step into DM shoes.

“We needed a more experienced player to do that - we signed Richie Myler - and that’s why his development was to continue at Bradford Bulls always with the prospect of coming back to Leeds Rhinos.

“As things have turned out that’s not materialised and Jordan is now very much a Bradford Bulls player.

“But there are no certainties with young players. Whilst all the others have progressed into the first-team on a regular basis Jordan didn’t actually achieve that.”

Rhinos signed former Warrington scrum-half Myler from Catalans Dragons, another signing that has attracted some criticism.

But Hetherington countered: “In defence of Richie Myler, despite the poor form of the team (in 2018), he was the club’s player of the year as judged by the coaching staff.

“That’s for everything; performance in the team but attitude in training and everything else.

“Whilst he might not have won the acclaim of all our fans he certainly had the respect of our coaching staff and they believed him to be our outstanding player.

“He also finished the season by playing for England in a Test series.”