If you would have told Richard Agar this time last year he would be leading Leeds Rhinos into the 2020 Super League season as head coach, he wouldn’t have believed you.
It was a crazy tale of events that led to his appointment in the top job, initially joining the eight-time Super League champions in a newly-created player and coach development role.
He arrived at Headingley in December 2018, a similar time to new head coach David Furner, who was brought in to steady the ship after a turbulent 2018 campaign.
But the Rhinos’ season didn’t get off to a good start, and the cracks started to appear when assistant coach Jimmy Lowes was released from his contract in April.
Agar filled the void left by Lowes on an interim basis, however things didn’t improve and Furner was sacked as coach after just 14 Super League games.
With nowhere else to turn and with valuable experience from spells at Hull FC and Wakefield, Director of Rugby Kevin Sinfield asked Agar to temporarily take charge.
It was a move that brought its fair share of criticism, however the 47-year-old was able to bring the players together and steer Leeds clear of relegation trouble.
“I have been in the game a long time,” said Agar. “I have been across lots of different experiences and the situation last year saw a massive club near the bottom of the league with time running out.
“But I felt we stayed strong and we stayed composed through what was viewed externally as a high pressure situation at the time.
“We didn’t feel that way inside though, there was a real strong commitment from the boys to reboot themselves halfway through the year.
“And I thought we started to see the results of that because even though we didn’t win every game, I thought we got an ultra committed bunch of people.”
After guiding Leeds to eighth, winning seven of his 14 Super League games, Agar was appointed permanent head coach of the Rhinos in September.
His rolling 12-month deal could be seen as a cautious approach by many, but it’s obvious that the club have a long-term vision as they look to create a new golden generation.
“There was and is lot of work being done behind the scenes by Kevin (Sinfield) to shape that roster and to clear the pathway for our younger players,” Agar explained.
“We’re ultra confident that our 18, 19 and 20-year-olds are some of the best the game has to offer, and every player in this squad is hungry and wants to make a name for themselves playing for Leeds Rhinos.
“The 20-year period the club has had, which has seen almost an unrivalled success in the game, has been built on guys that have come through the pathway.
“It’s up to us now to surround those young lads with the right players, who have the right experience, to give us the best chance to get this club back where it wants to be.
“We know there are going to be lots of challenges ahead, this is a massive club with huge history and expectation so we all have to be on the journey together.”
The last nine months has seen a significant turnover in players at Leeds, with Agar and Sinfield working closely to recruit a further five players during the off-season.
With a mixture of experience, reliability and potential – it’s obvious that the Rhinos coach feels each one of the club’s new signings has something to offer.
“Galey [Luke Gale] is our headline signing with his standing in the game, the fact he has come from Castleford and is a former Leeds player.
“It’s a huge move for him. He has had well-documented injuries and that brings a lot of challenges, but this is a new style of play and he’s embedded into the team very well.
“Then you look at Matty Prior who will bring consistency, something we really struggled with last year in the middle of the field defensively.
“He’s a no thrills sort of player who will turn in good performances week on week, he’s void of any ego and has been there and done it in the NRL.
“Kruise (Leeming) is a very important signing in that position. Brad Dwyer is a rip and tear sort of player whereas Kruise will bring a different skill set to that position.
“His partnership with Brad will be important, but Kruise is a super young player who is incredibly talented and determined to make it to the top of his game.
“You can say the same about Alex Mellor too who is a terrific young pro, he has got his best years in front of him and is another player we are very excited about.”
Having flirted with relegation in three of the last four seasons, it has been a tough period for a club who have become accustomed to success over the last 15 years.
Recent struggles have brought about a new perspective from the Rhinos’ loyal fan base, however expectation still remains high and Agar is all too aware of that.
“Everyone is saying top four, but we don’t want to set any targets. I’m coaching Leeds Rhinos, which brings with it pressure and responsibility.
“I and all the players need to embrace that and not shirk it. We need to be a committed team and we feel there is enough quality in there to be challenging.
“We want to have strong values and build something that’s not just about this year, but that’s about the year after and the year after that.
“We’re pragmatic about what’s ahead, we want to be consistent for the full 29 rounds and not just play well in the first few weeks of the season.
“The aim is to improve each week so when the whips are cracking in August and September, we are one of the teams that are being talked about – for all the right reasons.”