It’s fair to say 2014 was a decidedly mixed year for Leeds Rhinos. A sixth place finish in the Super League table was made worse by the failure to make it past the elimination finals of the play-offs, but Leeds fans were still able to look back at the year with a smile on their face after the club ended a 14-year wait to win a 12th Challenge Cup title. As ever, though, the Rhinos will start next season among the favourites to win the Super League title. So let’s have a closer look at how Leeds are shaping up ahead of an important year for the club, possibly giving those of us who like to bet on the rugby with the likes of Betfair a better idea of whether or not to back the Rhinos.
There have been a number of changes in personnel during the season, with the likes of Ben Jones-Bishop, Ryan Bailey and Ian Kirke all leaving Headingley, and head coach Brian McDermott is expected to welcome a number of new signings before the start of the 2015 season. As yet, there have only been a few arrivals since the end of the season, but let’s have a look at how the current group looking with just over two months to go before the new campaign gets under way.
While much of the full back’s season was overshadowed by his five-game ban following homophobic comments made towards Warrington captain Michael Monaghan, Hardaker’s performances throughout the year saw him earn a place in Steve McNamara’s England squad for the Four Nations. The 23-year-old might be not be everyone’s favourite person but the versatile back showed again in 2014 that he is one of the most consistent players in the Super League. His attacking abilities have been evident since Hardaker make his debut in 2011, but the youngster won’t have been satisfied with his return of eight tries in his 21 appearances.
At the end of his first season with the Rhinos, the winger has once again showed just why his arrival at Leeds from Hull was greeted with so much excitement. After a promising start to life at Leeds, Briscoe was an ever-present this season, scoring 10 tries from 25 Super League appearances and narrowly missing out on making a return to the England squad. At just 24, Briscoe has a huge amount of experience for his age, and the winger will again be an important part of McDermott’s plans next season. In Briscoe and Ryan Hall, the Rhinos have two of the best wingers in world rugby, and Leeds fans will know they have the threat out wide to cause problems for any team.
If there were any rugby league fans who didn’t believe Kallum Watkins was the real deal, the 23-year-old went a long way to winning those doubters around. Finishing the year with 12 tries to his name from 24 Super League appearances, Watkins was another key part of this Leeds attacking unit. After an impressive domestic season, the centre found himself on the plane Down Under after being named in England’s Four Nations squad. The youngster enhanced his reputation by helping England to the final in the tournament, and Rhinos know they have a real star on their hands in Watkins.
While 2014 might not have been as fruitful for the Australian centre as his debut season at Headingley was in terms of tries, Moon further enhanced his reputation as one of the most dynamic outside backs in the Super League. After racking up valuable experience in both the NRL and Super League before his arrival in Leeds, Moon has been a key part of McDermott’s team since last year and the Aussie will be hoping to build on another impressive season in 2015. Rumours linking the former Brisbane Broncos star with a move to the Warrington Wolves since the end of the season, but signing a new five year contract in May showed Moon is keen on staying in West Yorkshire.
What’s left to be said about Ryan Hall? A prolific winger who any club in world rugby would love to have, capable of scoring buckets of tries from all positions and one of the best last-ditch defenders in the game. On the back of another impressive season for the Rhinos, Hall continued his incredible scoring record for England by finishing as his team’s leading try scorer in the Four Nations, taking his tally to 24 tries from 23 appearances. Still just 26-years-old, Hall still has at least three good years left in him and the winger will be desperate to add to his trophy collection before the end of his illustrious career.
While Danny McGuire might be entering the final stages of his stellar career, the half back is still one of the best in the business in his position, and the 31-year-old was a key part of Leeds’ Challenge Cup run. Making 22 appearances during the season, McGuire’s body is still holding up despite a number of niggling injury problems in recent years. Playing alongside long-term partner Rob Burrow, McGuire can still create something out of nothing and his influence at Leeds is integral to the club’s success this season.
Like McGuire, Rob Burrow is entering the twilight of his remarkable career, but that’s not to say the Rhinos don’t still value the 32-year-old extremely highly. Injuries might have had an impact on Burrow’s season this year, but his performances when fit showed there is still no other player in world rugby capable of doing the sort of thing he can do. With over 400 appearances to his name, Burrow will go down in Rhinos’ history and winning the Challenge Cup this year was a deserved achievement for a player who had spent his career trying to lift the trophy.
Despite seemingly announcing his intention to retire at the end of every season, Leuluai is preparing for yet another Super League campaign. At 36-years-old, the Kiwi might actually be entering the final year of his career, and Leuluai will be looking to end his eight-year stay in Leeds with another trophy to his collection. Despite his advancing years, the prop racked up another 22 Super League appearances in 2014 and will be an important part of things next year.
Following his move from the Wakefield Wildcats, it’s been a somewhat underwhelming start to life at Headingley for Aiton. The hooker only made seven appearances in his first season with the Rhinos, and the former Penrith Panthers forward will be hoping to have a much bigger impact with Leeds next year. Aiton’s time at Wakefield proved he has what it takes to succeed in England; the question is now whether or not he can do it at a club as big as Leeds.
Another player most probably entering the final year of his career, Jamie Peacock has been one of the most important members of this Leeds team in recent years. The 36-year-old has won five Super League titles, two World Club Challenge titles and a Challenge Cup title during an illustrious eight year career at Leeds. With plans to retire at the end of the 2015 season, the former England player will be desperate to follow up this year’s Challenge Cup triumph with some more silverware next season.
The one-club man has been a loyal and productive servant to the Rhinos during his career and there were fewer happier faces than Jamie Jones-Buchanan when the final whistle went at the end of this season’s Challenge Cup Final. Still one of the most consistent back rows in the Super League despite a recent susceptibility to injuries, Leeds fans will be hoping a fully fit JJB will start the 2015 season. Injury problems plagued the 33-year-old for much of 2014, and the former England international is now looking for a problem-free campaign next year.
On the back of one of his most successful seasons, it was something of a surprise to see Ablett overlooked by Steve McNamara for his Four Nations squad. The 28-year-old was one of Leeds’ most consistent and impressive performers throughout 2014, making 23 appearances and scoring nine tries. But while missing out on England selection disappointed Ablett, it’s given the hard-working back row the chance to have a proper rest after a gruelling campaign.
13. Kevin Sinfield
It seems strange that there were a couple of ‘firsts’ for Kevin Sinfield in 2014. After picking up the first red card of his career in June, Sinfield ended the season by lifting the Challenge Cup for the first time. While the 34-year-old has taken the decision to retire from international rugby, Sinfield doesn’t yet look like hanging up his boots entirely. The Leeds captain has won countless trophies during his career, but a player as determined as Sinfield won’t be happy unless he ends his time with the Rhinos with the club back at the top of the game.
Still in the early stages of his Rhinos career, Leeds-born Stevie Ward has wasted little time in establishing himself as one of the most exciting youngster in the Super League. Capable of playing at half back or in the back row, Ward proved himself to be a useful option for Brian McDermott this year. Making 22 appearances for Leeds in 2014, Ward can expect another season of regular first team action next year.
Never the most skilful player, Brett Delaney has used his work-rate and determination to establish himself as a crucial part of this Leeds Rhinos squad. The Australian back row is a great option to have from the start or off the bench, and the former Gold Coast Titan is still an integral part of the Rhinos. With 22 appearances to his name in 2014, Delaney’s defensive attributes make him a fantastic player to have and Leeds fans know just how important the likeable Aussie is to the club.
16. Mitch Achurch
Despite just a brief spell in the NRL, Achurch has never looked out of place since his arrival in England. The versatile forward followed up a promising first season at Leeds with an impressive second year at the club, making 19 appearances and scoring four tries. The 26-year-old had been linked with a move away from the club in the winter, but McDermott has made it clear he is keen on keeping the Achurch at Headingley.
Preparing for his first season in the Super League, Cuthbertson will soon link up with his new team-mates after making the move from NRL side Newcastle Knights. The versatile forward has amassed plenty of experience in Australia and his arrival in West Yorkshire has been met with plenty of excitement. At 29-years-old, the Rhinos will be hoping they have signed a player just reaching his peak.
After bursting on the scene last season and establishing himself as a regular member of Brian McDermott’s first team squad, it was something of a surprise to see the Rhinos let the young stand-off move out on loan to the Bradford Bulls last season. Now back at Headingley after his spell with Bradford, Sutcliffe is looking at reclaiming his place in the first team squad and working his way back into the picture under McDermott.
Young prop Brad Singleton might not be ready for a full season in the Super League but the 22-year-old has shown during his short career that he is more than capable of handling himself against the big boys. With over 25 senior appearances to his name, Singleton will be looking to add to that tally in 2015, although there is a chance McDermott could be tempted to send out the youngster on loan somewhere else in the division in order to continue his development.