WHEN he first started the recovery job at Leeds Rhinos, the prospect of facing Super League leaders St Helens would have filled Richard Agar with dread.
Now, though, 14 weeks on from stepping in after Dave Furner’s shock sacking as head coach, Agar admits relishing the chance to tackle the treble-chasing side.
Agar has good reason; although still not safe from relegation, impressive back-to-back wins over Huddersfield Giants and Catalans Dragons – 92 points amassed againsy eight conceded – have certainly left his improving Leeds Rhinos looking far more like what people expect former World Club champions to resemble. “Facing Bradford Bulls wasn’t a great prospect when I took the job (let alone Saints),” he reflected to The Yorkshire Post, embarrassed Leeds losing at the Championship part-timers in the Challenge Cup in his first game.
“We’d had one training session. It was a difficult week as it always is when a coach gets sacked. It was a difficult game and loss. The boys really worked hard after and we prepared better against Cas’ but still got smoked.
We had to lock ourselves away three or four times to have some very honest and open conversations about re-establishing standards.Richard Agar
“There was a moment, then, though where we realised we had to start a fair bit further back than what we thought.
“That’s where I shower praise on the players; we asked them what sort of camp they wanted and what their problems were.
“We had to lock ourselves away three or four times to have some very honest and open conversations about re-establishing standards. We simplified everything, put a lot of clarity in to what we were doing and the effort has been there; there’s been a real determination and tremendous work ethic.
“We’ve still come unstuck at times and there’s been some losses where we’ve not managed a situation or there’s been a bit of a skill issue. But our effort has been good and we’ve seen some results. We’ve still some way to go. We know that.
“But we are looking forward to facing this Saints side. They are the benchmark and they come with a really strong squad.
“This will be a real measure of how far we have come.”
Leeds – now four points clear of bottom-placed London Broncos with four games to go – have won six of the dozen matches since Agar has been in interim charge.
Granted, they have always followed up two wins with two defeats, a cycle they will endeavour to finally break this evening.
The halfway point saw them lose 36-10 at Saints, who, now 14 points clear, have long since secured the League Leaders’ Shield and face Warrington Wolves in the Challenge Cup final next Saturday.
Leeds, though, have strengthened since then with the valuable signings of Robert Lui and Rhyse Martin, with Ava Seumanufagai and Shaun Lunt also coming in, while they are unrecognisable from the broken side Agar inherited.
Agar, who still refuses to comment on whether he wants the job permanently, said: “Even in that game at Saints, although we started poorly and finished quite poorly, for 60 minutes we competed against the benchmark side.
“Afterwards, we didn’t speak about relegation or anything like that. I’m coaching a group of players that are determined to get a performance each week, not worry about what’s happening in Round 29, and that’s a testament to what they’ve invested in each other.
“For me, it’s a joy to watch and it’s inspiring. We’re not going to say we’re now going to be challenging for the title. We know where we’re at.
“But the way we’ve pulled together in adversity is encouraging and for a while now I’ve not had the feeling we’ve been coaching a side that is fearing relegation.”
Agar, who still refuses to discuss whether he wants the Rhinos job on a permanent basis, knows what it is like to lead a team a week before playing at Wembley and how it can sometimes cause issues for the finalists.
He did so with Hull FC in 2008 when, coincidentally, they then lost out to the last Saints side to lift the Cup, a formidable team including the likes of Paul Sculthorpe, James Graham, Sean Long and Matt Gidley.
The former Wakefield Trinity and France coach added: “I didn’t take Hull to Wembley, though, when Hull were 14 points clear at the top of the league…
“But I spoke to Sean Long a while ago when Saints were travelling really well and the gist of the conversation I had with him was how they had to make sure they are fit and firing when it matters most.
“And that’s now; the Challenge Cup final and play-offs coming up.
“They’ve had that luxury of being able to rest players at certain times and, while that might have upset some people around the bottom of the table, they’ve been good decisions for Saints.
“They’ve freshened up players when they’ve needed freshening up and they’ve seen massive benefits from those in the following performances.
“I think they have timed it all well. They’re coming here on Thursday with some guys rested but with a strong side and a big game next week.
“I expect nothing other than a strong performance from Saints. But that’s what we want.”