Leeds Rhinos have been very busy recently.
The Rhinos allowed Jack Walker to leave the club yesterday to take up a one-year deal with Bradford Bulls, but this move was too little too late in their hopes to keep Zak Hardaker who has signed elsewhere with Leeds Rhinos Chief Executive Gary Hetherington doing as such when speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post today.
Hardaker is expected to sign for Leigh Centurions with an announcement expected as soon as today.
This has left Leeds fans worried after the loss of two fullbacks, one of whom can play centre, on the back of other losses like first choice centre Liam Sutcliffe.
Fans are wondering how these gaps might be filled, but the answers may have already been signed. Yes there are still some “comings and goings” at Headingley according to Hetherington but both Walker and Hardaker may have already been replaced.
Walker’s replacement is quite clear and fits the same mould in the shape of running fullback Luke Hooley from Batley who, like Walker, has massive potential.
However, Hardaker’s replacement is less obvious. Though Hardaker is perhaps best at fullback, one of his strengths since returning to Headingley was his versatility playing centre and on the wing during his time with the Rhinos in 2022.
Furthermore, what was perhaps more important was the amount of tackle busts he made no matter what position he was named in.
It was very clear very quickly that busting tackles to generate second phase play was key to coach Rohan Smith’s philosophies with Leeds often moving the ball wide to centres who cut inside beat defenders and then offloaded the ball leaving a defence in disarray. Harry Newman is exceptional at this as is Hardaker but also Leeds’ latest recruit Derrell Olpherts whose move to Headingley was confirmed today.
Olpherts accumulated the most tackle busts in Super League last year as well as gaining the third most metres after Leeds’ Ash Handley and Jai Field.
Furthermore, upon signing the club and Olpherts have focused on his versatility being able to play wing and fullback with Olpherts himself saying: “I didn’t really play winger until I came into Super League and I played my rugby before then as a centre or full back. I am happy to play at centre as well, I know that is something that Rohan has spoken about, and I’ll be working hard to add that versatility to my game and achieve good things here.”
So, a player capable of playing anywhere in the backs who excels at tackle busts: remind you of anyone?
Thus, Olpherts may not be the obvious replacement for Hardaker, but he certainly provides Leeds with many of the attributes Hardaker gave Leeds.
Perhaps the bigger focus is actually finding a replacement for Liam Sutcliffe which could come in the shape of Nene MacDonald.