Cast your mind back 12 months; Leeds were staring down the barrel of another relegation battle having lost all but one of their opening six games of the season. They were conceding points left right and centre but the one positive, and the reason why the Rhinos secured survival, was their potent left edge. Even whilst Leeds were in the doldrums, Konrad Hurrell and his relationship with Ash Handley was something to behold.
By the end of the season, Handley was a whisker away from Super League’s top try-scorer award whilst Konrad Hurrell featured inside the top 10. But even in the Rhinos humiliating start to last year’s campaign, the big Tongan was setting the league alight with tries against St Helens and in the dramatic rare win over Castleford at Headingley. Later in the season he would flourish in a Rhinos outfit that seemed closer to the finished article. He was uncontainable in Leeds’ thrashing of Huddersfield last summer, scoring twice as he tormented the Giants with ball in hand. And by the season’s close, it was universally accepted that he was one of the Rhinos few bright sparks – alongside Handley and Dwyer – in a dull and worrying season.
So, it’s hard to imagine, even given Leeds’ blistering start to the 2020 season, how Hurrell could be even better this year. And the answer to that is a strange one: because he’s doing less.
At the beginning of 2019, Leeds seemed to have two game plans. One was let Brad Dwyer run from acting half and the other was give the ball to Konrad Hurrell and hope he scores, or at least gets down field. This was most obvious when Leeds were played off the pitch at Craven Park by Hull KR but somehow Hurrell racked up four tries. Against teams like the Rovers and Huddersfield, such a tactic could work. But against the big boys, think again. All it did was give them something they could easily defend against whilst tiring out Leeds’ most threatening attacking weapon.
So, it’s been quite the masterstroke by the Rhinos to limit how they use him, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it means they aren’t draining the energy of one of their key attacking weapons by asking him to make every break and create every try. This has allowed Hurrell and Leeds to pick their moments. Just take his two major involvements against Toronto for example. Both came in the final quarter of the contest, the first being his assist in Luke Gale’s second try. He was given an early ball in space against a tiring Wolfpack defence whilst he seemed full of energy. Then of course there was his try that came in the final play of the game, exploiting a tired defence using his speed and strength. We can see just how savoured and cherry picked his moments in games are through his carries. Against Toronto, he only made 12 carriers. That’s 10 behind substitute Cameron Smith. I can’t help but wonder if a year ago this would’ve been the other way round, which brings me nicely to my next point: Hurrell is reaping the benefits from a much-improved Leeds side.
Of course, the Rhinos still have their doubters, ninth, tenth and eighth finishes in three of the last four seasons warrant such scrutiny, as does their opening round mauling against Hull FC. But truth be told, in their last four outings, they have looked a million miles ahead of where they were 12 months ago. This owes a lot to the development of the host of youngsters in the side. Take the aforementioned Smith for instance. He has already scooped three tries this season whilst also recording two impressive assists against Toronto. In most appearances he has achieved above 20 carries for around 80-100 metres, add to that plenty of vital passes from an extra pivot when at 13 and you have a recipe for success. Mikołaj Olędzki has also been in on the act, racking up two tries already this season and even earning a starting spot in the last two games. The pair, alongside new members of the Rhinos pack like Ava, Prior and Martin, have helped take the metre burden off Hurrell so now he can attack freely. But the growth of another Leeds youngster has also meant no burden rests on the Tongan in that department. Harry Newman has set Super League on fire so far this campaign with mature and professional performances. He managed two tries and two assists in two games against Hull KR and Salford but it was his performance against Warrington that was really eye-catching. For the entire game it seemed he kept opposite number Toby King in his pocket with some great defending. Meanwhile, every time Warrington looked towards a short kick off to get them back into the game, he dealt with it.
Alongside the Rhinos youngsters, the new recruits have helped Hurrell flourish in 2020. I’ve already mentioned how the arrival of some big fellas in the middle have taken the pressure of him, but it has been the attacking structure created by Rob Lui and Luke Gale that has taken the shackles off the former NZ Warriors man. Through the platform the pair have built, clearer opportunities have swung his way with the Rhinos having an attacking shape that opens up acres of space for this thoroughbred to wreak havoc.
It was never a doubt that ‘Konny’ was a great addition to Super League and a great centre, and now in a Leeds team seemingly primed for an assault on the top five, he seems even better. And it is no surprise that the Rhinos supporters have taken even more to the new ‘man of the people’ with his fantastic – if a little cringy – dance moves, as well as his now famous high fives. And the South Stand will love him even more if he can bring the glory days back to Headingley sooner rather than later.
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