POLL: McDermott confident that young Rhinos will step up to the plate

Leeds Rhinos' Stevie Ward. Picture Steven Riding.
Leeds Rhinos' Stevie Ward. Picture Steven Riding.
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THERE is a look of resignation from Leeds Rhinos head coach Brian McDermott as the obvious question arises.

On the back of their worst Super League finish since 1996, the club has made just one first-team signing for the campaign ahead.

While many supporters expected there to be significant investment into – if not an overhaul of – the squad in readiness for the new season, experienced Australian prop Adam Cuthbertson is, in fact, the only arrival.

Given Leeds have lost a raft of senior players, including six-time Grand Final winner Ryan Bailey, the similarly garlanded prop Ian Kirke, England Knights winger Ben Jones-Bishop and Chris Clarkson, who has gone to Widnes Vikings on a season-long loan, it is easy to see why fans are a little perturbed.

The numbers do not add up; four players out, just the one in? Surely that cannot equate to a return to Super League success in 2015?

“I know there’s some concern out there,” McDermott told The Yorkshire Post.

“I pre-empted what people would be thinking. There is some concern out there and a little bit of worry about what our squad will look like.

“I can understand that. I get it. You lose a Bailey and a Kirke and I can see why they think ‘who will we replace them with?’

“But I am really pumped that a Stevie Ward or Josh Walters, a Brad Singleton or Mitch Achurch will really step forward and make this season their own.

“And that’s to complement two of the best props in the country last year; Jamie Peacock missed out on Man of Steel by a hair’s breath and Kylie Leuluai had one of his best years for a while.”

Two of the players McDermott refers to – gifted second-row Ward (21) and Cumbrian prop Singleton (22) – are, of course, Academy products.

The cornerstone of Leeds’ domination of Super League since 2004 has been their ability to nurture young talent and progress them successfully into the first team.

The likes of Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Bailey and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, such stellar names and club legends now, are the obvious examples.

So, the trick is to continue that and the likes of Ward, Singleton and back-row union convert Walters (20) will all have greater opportunities in 2015 to prove they have the ability and mentality to do so.

“Brad Singleton definitely wants a big year,” continued McDermott.

“He’s not going to be the best prop in the league or our saviour; he’s still only 22, and we expected so much from him last year, probably too much.

“But he is definitely one for the future while someone like Jamie Jones-Buchanan might become more of a middle man than his usual back-row role this season.

“The exciting thing about Stevie Ward is that he hasn’t had a pre-season since I’ve been coach for one reason or another, but he has now and it looks like he’s almost doubled in size.

“It won’t be a surprise to anyone if our main back-rows at the start will be Carl Ablett and Brett Delaney but it’s up to a Stevie or Mitch Achurch to take that shirt off them.

“Josh Walters comes in as a squad member after a remarkable arrival last season so, yes, we’ve lost two senior campaigners but we’ve replaced them with (mainly) young, exciting, English prospects.”

Furthermore, another of those is Andy Yates, the 24-year-old prop who will be like a new signing in 2015.

He did not play a single game last season after joining from Hunslet Hawks, enduring a “torrid time” that included a ruptured Achilles and, then, torn biceps.

For all Leeds finished sixth in 2014, and exited the play-offs at the first hurdle meaning they have not reached Old Trafford for two successive years, they did, of course, finally win the Challenge Cup, a reminder that this vintage squad is still far from finished.

It would be folly to suggest they cannot prosper once more and lift a seventh Super League title in just 12 years.

But McDermott, who guided them to two of those triumphs in 2011 and 2012, realises they have to adapt their game after struggling at times last season to produce the clinical aspect of those previous sides.

It cannot be ignored that Leeds, uncharacteristically, lost their final six league games of the campaign and he sought the views of all the squad as to what they thought needed altering to remedy that.

He said: “We stripped a couple of things right back.

“While for the vast majority of last season we were very good and achieved so much, there were also some things we weren’t as good at as we should have been. Clearly, I think, we weren’t skilful enough; I thought we made far too many errors.

“When you look at the comp’ stats, we didn’t stack up that well compared to the rest. We need to be more skilled. Some of that is what you’d call ‘lack of skill’ but we also came up with too many unrealistic passes.

“Most coaches want to eradicate all errors out of their game but I don’t think you can. If you pass the ball a lot you’re going to make some errors.

“One of the stats reads we passed the ball more than any other team last year so, therefore, by that rationale we’re going to make a few more mistakes than most. But that still doesn’t account for some we made. That has to be tightened up.

“But we won’t stop passing. We just need to be more skilled to convert some of those chances we missed with better decisions and execution.”

McDermott has been challenged before and answered his critics emphatically. It would be no surprise if he did so again in 2015.