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Long Read Interview: Rohan Smith

Leeds Rhinos were dumped out of the 2023 Challenge Cup after a close-fought 18-14 defeat at the hands of rivals Wigan Warriors at Headingley Stadium.

It was a disappointing result for Rhinos head coach Rohan Smith and their fans having raced into a 14-0 lead in the first-half thanks to tries from Tom Holroyd, Harry Newman and three goals from Rhyse Martin.

But Wigan came back to avenge their league defeat at the hands of Leeds last week, a game which ironically saw the Rhinos come back from 14-0 to prevail 40-18 at the DW Stadium – that despite also having Zane Tetevano sent off.

It could be argued though that Matt Peet’s Warriors won the game that mattered on Saturday afternoon in front of the BBC cameras, with only two major domestic honours available to win in British rugby league, with Leeds now out of the running for one of them after a seesaw match.

After the game, Rhinos boss Smith remained extremely positive despite the nature of the defeat and was quick to recognise what a fantastic game it had been between the two teams that have won the Challenge Cup on the most occasions.

“I thought it was a terrific contest, an open game in great conditions,” Smith said after the match. “Both teams attacked it and it could have gone either way and very nearly did.

“That was a good game. You know as a fan and as a supporter, if you follow rugby league you can be disappointed with the result but recognise a good game of footy between two good teams competing for the first step of a big prize.

“I am proud of the effort of some of our players. They are obviously disappointed but sometimes you have to look past the result, as silly as that sounds, and recognise a great game of footy which if played again would have gone the other way.”

The big talking point in the match came in the final moments, with the score at 18-14 to Wigan and the clock ticking down, Leeds centre Newman, who had already scored a try in the game after deciding against passing to Richie Myler who was in a better position, broke through again.

It presented the Rhinos star with another opportunity to pass to Myler on the inside who would have had a clear run to the line near the posts, with the try likely to be converted and Leeds likely to have won the game and knocked Challenge Cup holders Wigan out.

However, again Newman elected to throw the dummy again and this time Warriors fullback Bevan French was able to stop the England international to the frustration of Myler, his other teammates and the crowd inside Headingley Stadium.

Newman is undoubtedly one of the most gifted and most excited players in Super League but it wouldn’t be too ‘out there’ to say that perhaps he lets his emotions get the better of him some times.

It is well documented that the centre had a bust up with Holroyd recently and today he and Myler were seen arguing after he didn’t pass to the fullback. It poses Smith with an interesting conundrum as he manages an undoubtedly world class star.

Speaking on the incident, the Rhinos boss added: “It was execution. There were a lot of big moments that could have swung the game and if we score that try at the end Wigan probably feel the way we do right now.

“I don’t think Harry was too selfish. He was trying to come up with the right thing. Bevan French has taken intercepts in those situations before or disrupted them in the past.

“It is all happening in that moment, so you never really understand it unless you are out there so most of us will never understand. It is never down to one play in a game.

“You have to back the instincts of players. In the end the one in the first half turned out well and the second one didn’t.

“I think he made a decision. No one wants to win more than Harry. It never comes down to one moment, there were heaps of moments in the game where we could have done better and then maybe we wouldn’t have been in that situation.

“As I said earlier, Wigan executed some plays really well, they’re a good team and it was a good game. You have to go hard at it, and sometimes there will be disappointment there.”

Though his boss was unwavering in his stance on Newman, deciding to firmly stand by his star player, Leeds fans have unsurprisingly not been as forgiving with many on social media calling him out for costing them the game and a place in the next round of the Challenge Cup.

The obvious frustration among the fanbase is born out of the fact that Leeds won’t be going to Wembley this season, with their chances of winning one of the two major domestic trophies now over.

Adding to his previous comments, Smith revealed what he said to Newman after the moment, with the centre clearly upset with the outcome of that moment and the final result.

“I just said ‘keep your head up’,” Smith added. “He has made a decision in a key moment in the game. It is easy to say sat in the grand stand, coulda, woulda, shoulda.

“Bevan French is an expert in moments like that as well. I’m saying that again because he really is. He makes you second guess and where in most situations you are thinking it is a two on one and a definite try, when Bevan is back there he makes you overthink it.”

Smith also spoke on the match overall and the Rhinos performance, in which they surrendered a 14-0 advantage against a team they beat comfortably in the league the week before.

Naturally asked about his team’s inability to play for a full 80, Smith again hit back at those suggestions as he questioned the officiating of the game which played a major part on the momentum.

“Everyone wants to make a thing about the first half, but I don’t think we played poorly in the second half. We played a good team and we had some near misses and they executed a few games well.

“There was no set restarts in the second half so maybe the game was open enough there, I’m not quite sure why that was. It was like a completely different game.

“I think the last time I asked there was no set restarts so it is really difficult to understand how there was just none. The rule was brought in to be able to not penalise but to make a rule.

“I think it is very inconsistent but overall the game was end to end, there were a lot of opportunities, it wasn’t like many of the other games this season which have been really slow, that was a good game.”

Smith concluded by speaking about Aidan Sezer’s display as he returned from injury. As he assessed Sezer’s display, Smith highlighted a key moment towards the end of the game when Sezer made a mini break only to lose the ball in what some Leeds fans felt should have been a penalty for the Rhinos.

“He (Sezer) had a steady game there. He was a threat carrying the ball. At the back end there, he pocked his nose through and didn’t quite get the reward there which could have ended up being a big play in the game.

“He will be better for it. It is always tough when you come back into the mix after a month out to get back into the full battle and that was a hectic game. I thought he did well.”

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