Leeds tyro Sutcliffe leaps into honours reckoning

AS awards season approaches, there is the inevitable talk about not only which teams will go on and earn honours but also which individuals too.

Liam Sutcliffe of Leeds Rhinos
Liam Sutcliffe of Leeds Rhinos

When it comes to Super League’s finest young player Hull FC’s prolific Ben Crooks is certainly a contender, along with his wingman Tom Lineham.

Catalan Dragons’ evasive full-back Morgan Escare and the similarly quick Kieran Dixon, who has offered some light in another season of gloom for London Broncos, have won plaudits too.

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There are many others, not least Warrington’s impressive forward Ben Currie and Alex Walmsley, the St Helens prop from Batley.

However, if he had been around a little longer and not only debuted in mid-May, Leeds Rhinos’ Liam Sutcliffe would surely have been a challenger too.

He may only have played a dozen games for the champions but such has been the 18-year-old’s instant impact – whether at loose forward, stand-off and now, strangely, wing – he is actually thought of in the same circles.

Coach Brian McDermott is clearly a fan of the strapping teenager’s talents, given he has been ever-present since that first appearance at St Helens and even after the club’s crippling injury crisis has eased.

But the statistics do not lie; Sutcliffe, a Leeds fan nurtured in the increasingly fertile Hunslet Warriors amateur club, has made 12 clean breaks, averaging one a game, produced nine try assists, crossed the line six times himself and – in a sign he has strength allied to craft – busted 38 tackles.

The often treacherous transition from Academy to Super League has been seamless yet, as he prepares to line up against Hull KR this evening, he admits: “It’s all been very unexpected.

“I started training with the first team in pre-season and just thought I’d be making the numbers up.

“But, we got a couple of injuries and he (McDermott) has put me in there and I’ve managed to retain my place in the team.

“Obviously there’s been injuries so that could be the reason why but I’m just trying to perform week in, week out and make sure that now he has no reason not to pick me.”

Sutcliffe seems to be doing just that. When captain Kevin Sinfield returned from injury at Wakefield recently the youngster retained his spot at stand-off with the Leeds legend instead starting at hooker for the next three games.

That changed at Salford last week when the England Academy international ended up standing in for the world’s best winger Ryan Hall.

“I was due to play at loose forward but then Hally pulled up in the changing rooms throwing up so he (McDermott) came over to me and said ‘Are you alright with playing on the wing?’” explained Sutcliffe.

“I didn’t know what to say so I just said I’d do my best but I’d never played on the wing in my life so I was a bit nervous to say the least.

“I’d played centre before so it’s not too far from there and I was only attacking on the wing while defending as a half-back, so it wasn’t too bad.”

Ostensibly, it has been Danny McGuire’s long-term injury which has created the chance for Sutcliffe to blossom and seize his chance.

However, the England half-back is hoping to be back from his broken leg in time for the play-offs meaning the youngster may have further competition to contend with.

“I’m not taking it (position) for granted and I’ll play anywhere,” added Sutcliffe.

“I’m just working hard in training and hoping he picks me. That’s all I can do.

“If he does pick me then that’s great but if not I’ll be there cheering the side on.

“It’s been a great experience so far, just being out there with the boys more than anything.

“Obviously, since being a youngster I’ve always watched Leeds and wanted to play for them. It seems just two minutes ago since I was actually at my local amateur club running around like a little kid.

“It’s been a bit weird playing with the likes of Kev and Danny as I watched them when I was growing up.

“But that’s been great for me. They always come and give me advice and to be able to get that from top-class players like them is a dream come true.”

By the time McGuire returns – the 31-year-old was injured at Hull just two weeks after Sutcliffe’s debut – Leeds hope to have pushed on from fourth and secured third place.

“That’s the aim,” added Sutcliffe, knowing a fifth successive victory tonight will see them draw level with Wigan in third. “We’re trying to get as far up the table as possible.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens with the rest of these three games left.

“It’s looking good for us. We’ve been performing well these last few weeks.

“We’ve still got a bit to work on in attack but you can’t fault our defence.

“We’re all working for each other and the effort’s there in ‘d’ but there’s plenty to build on.

“Rovers will be looking to bounce back after losing their derby against Hull on Sunday and will be desperate to do so in the fight for eighth spot.

“I was 18th man last time we faced them and played in the Under 19s before,” said Sutcliffe.

“It’s always a tough game against any Hull side, especially KR, but we’ll be ready for it.”

Indeed, on the ample evidence so far, it seems this young man was born ready.