Today marks one year since Leeds won the Challenge Cup for a fourteenth time. In a strange looking empty Wembley stadium, the Rhinos claimed the trophy with a 17-16 win against Salford. The Headingley faithful hoped that it would be the first step on Leeds’ return to glory, but a year on, are Leeds any closer to Grand Final glory?
Leeds are currently enduring their longest wait for a Grand Final win since they ended a 32-year title drought in 2004. Leeds haven’t played at the Theatre of Dreams since 2017 when they claimed a record eighth Super League title at the expense of West Yorkshire rivals Castleford. Their Super League title record has since been matched and topped by St Helens who claimed a ninth Super League crown with an eighth Grand Final win last week against Catalans.
The Saints booked their place in the Grand Final with an utterly dominant win over the Rhinos in the semi-finals which seemed to point towards the huge gap between Leeds and Saints at the moment. But perhaps it could be easier to claw back that gap than some might think. After all, Leeds’ defeat was more respectable than the domination Catalans suffered at the hands of St Helens in the 2020 semi-final and a year later they finished top of the league and were just two points away from taking the Saints to extra time in the Grand Final.
But do Leeds have the players to end what will be a five-year wait for a Super League title by the time next year’s decider rolls around? Well, with this being the one-year anniversary of their last major final win, it stands to reason that they could do.
Only five of the players who featured at Wembley that day have moved on in the shape of Konrad Hurrell, Rob Lui, Ava Seumanufagai, Adam Cuthbertson and Alex Sutcliffe. Since, Leeds have replaced virtually all of them and then some.
On paper, they could have their strongest squad since 2017 next year thanks to the arrival of Aidan Sezer, Blake Austin and James Bentley all of whom will bring significant pedigree to Headingley next year. With the rumoured arrival of David Fusitu’a they’ll also have some serious fire power on the flank.
Perhaps they need a little more depth at prop but James Bentley is an exciting acquisition who’ll provide more bite down the middle of the field which is arguably what Leeds lacked in the semi-final defeat to St Helens.
So, let’s return to the question I started with: are Leeds any closer to Grand Final glory now than a year ago and have they built on that Wembley win?
Despite finishing fifth for the second consecutive season, I’d argue that Leeds have made steps forward. Their youngsters have had the opportunity to develop further and stood up to the plate during Leeds’ injury crisis last term. Without so many injuries, you could make a serious argument that Leeds could’ve finished higher than fifth especially as they were able to beat both third-place Warrington and fourth-place Wigan.
Their play-off performance against the Warriors was also encouraging and, in the end, their season ended one step closer to Old Trafford than in 2020 meaning they literally took another step forward last season.
Moving forward, their young players are only going to get better. Backs Harry Newman and Jack Broadbent could be something special next term with the brilliant halfbacks they’ll have at their disposal next year whilst Mikolaj Oledzki will only progress.
I’m not here to tell you that Leeds will win the Grand Final next year, but what I will say is that the project Richard Agar has over seen has only advanced since that Wembley win and Leeds fans should look forward to 2022.