Classy Kangaroos forward Merrin arrived in the UK earlier this week to take up a four-year deal at Emerald Headingley, becoming the West Yorkshire club’s second ‘marquee’ capture.
Leeds – who yesterday revealed plans for a bronze statue of legendary player John Holmes to adorn the £45m rebuild of their famous stadium – fought hard to secure the New South Wales State of Origin star following his surprise release from Penrith Panthers.
Earlier, Bennett, Merrin’s coach when St George-Illawarra won the 2010 NRL Grand Final, said the player had been in touch enquiring about potentially joining him at Brisbane Broncos before he made his own switch to South Sydney.
But Merrin, 29, insisted: “As soon as I found out about Leeds, I was very excited about it.
“It came as a shock to leave the NRL when I did; I wanted to tick every box to see if I could get a few more years out there.
“But that wasn’t the case. I was always excited to come over to Super League – I just talked to Wayne as a mate.
“I won a comp’ under him and I’ve learned everything I have in the game from Wayne. He gave me the chance to start my career.
“To touch base with him and get his understanding of everything over here really helped my decision to come over.
“He’s nothing but raps for the Super League – he loves it and he’s nothing but good words to say about it. It was comforting to get his perspective on things.”
Merrin made 205 NRL appearances, debuting with St George-Illawarra in 2009 before moving to Penrith in 2016 which was also the year he won the Four Nations final with Australia at Anfield.
He now hopes to add a Grand Final success with Rhinos and he said: “It was always a goal of mine to come over here and play in the Super League.
“I’ve done pretty well back home and ticked a few boxes of things I dreamed of as a kid.
“To come over here and try and tick a few more is something I’m very passionate about.”
Merrin is relishing the chance to play more expansive football under incoming Rhinos head coach Dave Furner, who was a Kangaroos assistant during some of his time with the Test team.
“That’s the style of footy I enjoy – off the cuff,” he said, as opposed to the more rigid NRL.
“Things like creating second-phase play is what Super League is big on and that’s what excites me the most. It’s pretty structured back home and Dave’s bringing a bit of that here – which every team needs – but look at the quality players in our squad; their second-phase play is exceptional.
“To have that bit of structure is going to tighten us up. The level of training and skill I’ve walked into is up there.”
Meanwhile, the idea of incorporating a statue of Holmes – who made a club record 625 appearances – is all part of Rhinos’ bigger scheme of capturing more than a century of the club’s heritage within the newly-constructed Headingley Stadium.
The gifted stand-off made his debut in 1968 and, remarkably, did not retire until 1989.
World Cup winner Holmes played in 19 major finals for Leeds, winning all but five, and was rejoiced for his deft skill and creativity. He died from cancer at the age of 57 in 2009.
Hull-based sculptor Steve Winterburn will again turn his focus to rugby league having successfully created The Wembley Stadium Rugby League heroes statue.
The John Holmes Statue will be placed at the front of the South Stand and the club has opened an online fundraising option for fans to help reach the £100,000 target needed to make it a reality.
Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington said: “We are delighted to launch the ‘Headingley Is Home’ project and develop the Tetley’s South Stand area for our Rugby Heritage. This will, eventually, be the starting point for a full stadium tour to include rugby and cricket and we want this completed by 2020 to mark the stadium’s 130th anniversary.”
Rhinos Foundation Heritage Committee Chairman Phil Caplan added: “The debate was not long for the heritage group to recommend who it should be of; the ultimate local although reluctant hero, the most durable and, for those who saw him at his pomp, arguably the best-ever to don the colours he so cherished.”