Analysing how Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer’s partnership at Leeds Rhinos will work

In 2022, eight-time Super League Champions Leeds Rhinos are hoping to fire themselves to success again after four seasons without a title. They’re pinning their hopes on the back of a new halfback pairing in the shape of former Man of Steel nominees Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer who join from Warrington and Huddersfield respectively.

For 15 seasons Leeds’ number six and seven shirts persistently went to the same duo in the shape of legends Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow who wore the jerseys from 2003 to 2017. In the years since, Leeds have now had four number sixes in the shape of Joel Moon, Tui Lolohea, Rob Lui and Blake Austin and now three number sevens with Richie Myler, Luke Gale and now Aidan Sezer taking on the historic shirt number.

The story of Rob Burrow has only given the number seven shirt greater prestige and the fact that every wearer of the shirt since Ryan Sheridan has won a trophy as a Rhino (with Richie Myler winning the Challenge Cup a year after vacating the seven shirt) leaves extra pressure on Sezer and his halfback partner Austin going into 2022.

Both are quality players who have previously taken the league by storm and are just two of four major signings made by Leeds this off season with James Bentley and David Fusitu’a also adding definite quality. That as well as the constant growth of Leeds’ exciting youngsters has the Rhinos expecting success in 2022 and it’s clear that Austin and Sezer will be key to anything the Rhinos achieve next term.

But how will their partnership work next season and how could it change the way Leeds play?

Since the arrival of Luke Gale ahead of 2020, he and Rob Lui were Leeds’ first choice halfback pairing even if they only played 12 minutes together in 2021. The duo each dominated half of the field with Gale taking the reins on the left and Lui commanding the attack on the right. Even when absent, Leeds often adopted a similar style with one half on either side of the pitch.

However, the question remains, will Leeds adopt a similar style in 2022 with one of Sezer and Austin on the left and the other on the right or could the Rhinos revert to a system where one player organises and the other offers a running threat like Leeds’ title winning halfback pairing of McGuire and Moon in 2017. It has to be said that the differing skillsets of Austin and Sezer could lend themselves to this kind of attack.

Some hints to how their combination might work at Leeds in 2022 were given when the pair were interviewed by BBC Radio Leeds’ James Deighton.

In the interview, Sezer said: “Here it’s an opportunity to play the way we really want to play and that’s on the front foot as halves linking up together at a big club and we’re under a coach who’s going to enable us to do that. I’m looking forward to it.”

Austin added: “It’s more our personalities. We’re good friends and we’re always going to come off the field and remain good friends and I reckon in the heat of the moment that’s something you can’t buy. If you don’t have the foundations of the friendship then some people take things the wrong way.

“He knows when to tell me to rein it in and I know when to do the same.”

This suggests that the duo could have a more off the cuff relationship rather than a structured one with both building off what the other does with ball in hand. However, when asked about what sides they’ll play next year, Sezer answered: “Predominately I’ve always played on the left because of my left foot and it helps my kicking game and Austin’s the same with his right foot. In defence we’ll probably be structured to one side or the other but in attack we want to play on the ball, play a free flowing, nice style of footy at Leeds.”

Austin then added: “My strength is to get around the field and Aidan’s is to get his hands on the ball. Talking to Rich [Richard Agar] and Longy [Rhinos assistant coach Sean Long] there’s certainly no plans to lock us in, we’re going to be moving. Whether it’s Jack Walker or Richie Myler we’re all going to have a role right across the park, certainly not locking us in.”

From this it seems the Rhinos will stray away from the kind of structured attack we’ve seen them operate with previously under Agar which saw Luke Gale attacking down the left and Rob Lui down the right. Instead, Sezer and Austin appear free to have fluid roles alongside the fullback whether that be the aforementioned Jack Walker who is hoping to return from injury with a bang or Richie Myler who has shone in the role recently and has recently signed a new deal with the Rhinos.

Furthermore, it seems Leeds are eager to play to the strengths of the former Canberra halfbacks allowing Austin to use his dynamic running game which saw him finish the 2019 season joint fifth for tries in the league with 18 despite a number of injuries towards the end of the campaign. Meanwhile, Sezer’s pass range and kicking arsenal will be used to good effect.

This fluidity should also bode well for Leeds’ attack. Last year a huge percentage of their tries were scored down centre field as their edge attack struggled due to the injuries in the halves. Meanwhile, Leeds have favoured the left edge in the last three seasons with left winger Ash Handley scoring 22 tries in 2019 and finishing 2020 as the league’s top scorer whilst just 15% of Leeds’ tries in 2021 were scored down the right side with Luke Briscoe, who spent much of the season as the right winger, crossing for just four tries in 22 appearances with 13 of those appearances coming on the right wing and just two of his tries being scored in those 13 games. With David Fusitu’a coming to play on the right next year alongside the exciting Harry Newman, Leeds will want a holistic attack and the fluid partnership building between the two will likely lead to that.

Looking back at their partnership at Canberra Raiders from 2016-18, the duo bring the best out of one another. The video below depicts the running threat the duo offers predominately through Austin however Sezer also gets in on the act. Furthermore, one particular highlight depicts Sezer creating space for Austin to carve open a defence and plenty of his running opportunities could be traced back to the way Sezer uses space through the ball and moves the ball into dangerous positions.

Equally, this video from the same channel Raiders Coach demonstrates the way to two dovetailed nicely in terms of the kicking game. In many ways, this is the opposite from the running game the two demonstrated at Canberra with Sezer dominating the kicking duties. However, with Sezer’s left foot and Austin’s right foot the two create a kicking range which covers the entire field and can create havoc from short range even creating opportunities for each other.

In many ways, both players kicking game could be said to have evolved since that point too. We’ve seen the danger posed by Blake Austin’s bombs for Warrington whilst Sezer’s ability to play on either side of the field – which he has done at various clubs throughout his career – has no doubt contributed to an even more complete kicking range one we saw cause plenty of teams problems at Huddersfield.

In 2016, Sezer played 21 times for the Raiders and was joined by Austin on 17 occasions as the Green Machine finished second in the league. They boasted the best offence in the competition with 688 points and 118 tries with Austin crossing for the joint fourth best tally of tries at the club that season.

Crucially for what Leeds hope to achieve next season their partnership also saw right winger Jordan Rapana end the year as the second highest try scorer in the competition with 20 tries to his name whilst left centre Jarrod Crocker finished the year with 17 tries and fifth in the rankings demonstrating the danger their partnership created across the field not localised down the left or middle like Leeds’ attack in recent years. Both Fusitu’a and Handley should be licking their lips.

Looking back at this partnership in 2016, the duo played a creative brand of rugby. In fact, it was perhaps akin to the “free flowing” style Sezer himself mentioned in the interview with James Deighton. The pair looked to play towards space creating opportunities for dangerous and powerful runners something Leeds have plenty of due to the development of athletic backs like Harry Newman and powerful forwards like James Bentley.

Even in 2017, when Canberra slipped to 10th in the league, the Raiders still had a better attack than seven of the teams above them with 558 points with Sezer and Austin sharing 11 tries as they played all 24 games alongside each other.

It seems Leeds may have struck gold with the pair arriving at Headingley, although the proof will certainly be in performance. However, the omens are good for the Rhinos. Their friendship, their experience playing alongside each other and their differing yet complimentary skillsets should culminate in some lovely attacking rugby whilst the fluidity it appears they’ll bring with a relaxed partnership with neither player locked into a certain side should lead to a Leeds attack which creates opportunities across the field helping Leeds score points and win games, perhaps even win the biggest games.

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