Written by John Davidson
“Fly home, and take the lot of them with you!”
That was the opinion of one angry, bearded Leeds fan, yelled at coach David Furner in the South Stand, as the Rhinos slumped to their fourth loss of the 2019 season on Friday night.
After five matches, Leeds have just one victory and sit in 10th place in Super League, two spots above bottom. It hasn’t been plain sailing for new boss Furner.
The Australian arrived at Headingley with his reputation as a brilliant ex-player. A fan favourite, his record on the pitch for the club from 2003 to 2004 should buy him some time.
But supporters, across any sport these days, are fickle. Just ask Jurgen Klopp. And Leeds fans are used to success.
Since 2004 they have won eight grand finals and finished runners-up once. In the past 15 years they have won two Challenge Cups and reached the Cup final on six occasions. In that same period they have claimed three World Club Challenge trophies.
For a decade and a half they have been the preeminent force of English club rugby league. But that could finally be all about to change.
Their golden group of players have nearly all retired or moved on. Only five players are left from the team that won at Old Trafford in 2015 – Tom Briscoe, Kallum Watkins, Carl Ablett, Brad Singleton and Adam Cuthbertson.
Two of them, Ablett and Cuthbertson, are 33 and over. Ablett has not played a single game this season. Neither has another member of the old guard in Jamie Jones Buchanan, who is 37.
Against the odds, the Rhinos managed to snatch their last grand final triumph in 2017. Danny McGuire put on a masterclass in his last game as a Leeds player, as they overpowered an out of sorts Castleford in the Manchester rain.
But that title was book-ended by poor campaigns in 2016 and 2018. The one last year cost Brian McDermott, the most successful coach in Super League history, his job.
Backed by a sizeable recruitment spree that landed marquee men Trent Merrin and Konrad Hurrell from the NRL, as well as Tui Lolohea, hopes were high from many in the Rhinos faithful. Hurrell replaced Joel Moon, who has hung up his boots, but the tireless work done by Ryan Hall on the wing has not been adequately replaced.
Lolohea is a fine player, but has played most of his NRL football at either fullback, centre on the wing. It remains to be seen if his partnership with Richie Myler in the halves can lead the club back up the table. The forward pack also appears light compared to several rivals.
The club managed to postpone its rebuilding phase in 2017, but it cannot do so forever. No side in a salary-capped sport can stay at the top indefinitely.
Leeds’ squad needs serious surgery to turn it back into Super League contenders. Some the players allowed to leave, including Mitch Garbutt and Jimmy Keinhorst, have surprised onlookers.
What should help is an outstanding crop of youngsters coming through in the Leeds academy. While Jack Walker and Mikolaj Oledski have successfully make the step-up to Super League, the likes of Owen Trout, Thomas Holroyd, Harry Newman and Muizz Mustapha are waiting in the wings.
But it is unfair to expect young players to shoulder all the weight. The Rhinos need their senior figures to step up and lead by example.
Furner is trying to change the way Leeds play, alter their style of a more free-flowing, offload-focused attack into a more structured, more phase-based game-plan. This won’t happen overnight. But some fans are getting restless.
The 48-year-old is staying calm and collected. He knows it is no time to panic after only five rounds.
The Rhinos have had a difficult run to start with 2019 with away games against last year’s grand finalists Warrington, defending champions Wigan, Salford (who they beat comfortably) and League Leader’s Shield winners St Helens. They have only played at home once, and that was against a talented team that finished fifth in 2015.
After the one-sided loss to Wakefield Furner was asked if he was worried. He laughed and told the media: “It wasn’t a good game, but certainly we’ve made some pretty good improvements.
“We have to have a look at some certain system errors, but there’s only one way to learn and that’s to go out there and do it again. We’ll obviously practice it but… we’ve had some tough games, and some close ones. Wakefield are up there with some of the teams we’ve played in the first four rounds.
“They were quite big, they were quite strong and we didn’t handle that. As a coach there you have a look at improvements and you implement those and away you go.”
Furner is as a composed character in front of the media as you’ll find. There is little emotion, not ranting or raving, or bold statements.
Leeds next five matches are away at Hull FC, home to London, away at Catalans, home to Castleford and away to Hull KR. Failure to win at least one or more of them will see the Headingley hot-seat get even hotter.