AFTER A traumatic 2018 the early signs are Leeds Rhinos can look ahead to the new year with fresh optimism.
Rhinos began their pre-season campaign with a hard-fought 10-4 win over visitors Wakefield Trinity in the traditional Boxing Day challenge.
Against a strong Trinity outfit, who finished last term four places above them in fifth in the Super League table, Leeds displayed elements of their character which were missing during their dismal year as champions.
Trinity were in control for long stages, but Rhinos withstood some sustained pressure and, after trailing 4-0 at the interval to a try by Bill Tupou, turned the game on its head in the final 18 minutes when Tom Briscoe and Ash Handley touched down. Having lost five matches by a single point during their flirtation with relegation in which they let a series of leads slip late in games, Rhinos will take heart from the manner in which they clawed their way back into the contest and stood firm as Trinity attacked in the closing stages.
Rhinos’ defence, led by Stevie Ward who played the full 80 minutes on his comeback from injury, was strong throughout and conceded only one try, following an error near their line.
Wakefield had more and better chances and will also be satisfied with seeing their line breached just twice, though – as both coaches conceded – neither team got their attacking game into gear.
Vice-captain Danny Brough, re-signed from Huddersfield Giants, caused Leeds problems with his kicking game and will clearly be a big influence on Trinity next term. There were also encouraging signs from fellow recruits Craig Kopczak and George King in Wakefield’s pack.
The lack of a specialist stand-off was costly for Leeds this year, but Tui Lolohea, the only one of their four additions to feature on Boxing Day, was involved in both the hosts’ touchdowns and kicked the game’s only conversion from close to Rhinos’ left touchline.
Leeds’ 19 included James Donaldson, the back-row forward who has been training with them after being released by Hull KR at the end of last season. He will have done his prospects of a contract no harm with a hard-working display.
Leeds coach Dave Furner, in charge for the first time, was pleased to begin with a win, but admitted his team – as to be expected at this time of year – are far from the finished article.
I talk about being committed to your team-mate and I think, although it was the Boxing Day game, we showed that on our tryline.Dave Furner
“It was a little bit scrappy,” said Furner, whose men begin their Betfred Super League campaign at Warrington Wolves on February 2.
“I think we were disappointing with the ball in the first half.
“We created some opportunities, but I think the pleasing thing is the way we value our tryline was on show.
“I talk about being committed to your team-mate and I think, although it was the Boxing Day game, we showed that on our tryline. There was a couple of times they may have got over our line, but we scrambled quite well.
“There are very positives signs for where we need the team to go, but I also grounded the players in saying we have still got a lot of work [to do].
“I am pleased for the fans – it was a good turnout – and pleased for the players we were able to get that result.”
Wakefield coach Chris Chester was of a similar opinion about his team. He said: “I thought both teams were way off with the ball, there was a lot of errors and our execution wasn’t great.
“They bombed a couple, we bombed a couple and I just thought our indiscipline at the start of the second half probably hurt us a little bit, but there’s a lot to be excited about.
“As a Wakefield coach and a Wakefield fan I think we’ve got a squad here that can go on and do some good things this season.”
Batley Bulldogs retained the Roy Powell Trophy by overcoming neighbours Dewsbury Rams 16-10 in the traditional Boxing Day fixture.
A new-look Rams side will have pleased debut coach Lee Greenwood with the effort shown, especially in the second half as they battled back from a 10-0 interval deficit.