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The cautionary tale of Leeds Rhinos’ 2016 season and what St Helens must learn from them

I think we can all agree that from 2004 to 2015, Leeds Rhinos were the dominant force of Super League. The West Yorkshire outfit won seven Super League titles in that time, finished top three times, won a pair of Challenge Cups as well as three world titles.

2015 itself was a massive year and the perfect end for the ‘golden generation’ at Leeds and saw the likes of Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield bow out as treble winners. Even without the two former England captains, with Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow still at the club, plenty of people still expected Leeds to be the standard bearers in 2016.

Martyn Sadler of the League Express even said at the time, “the Rhinos seem so far ahead of the other clubs in Super League.” He went onto state he feared that the others teams could “be left behind” by the rampant Rhinos.

Although plenty of people believed they’d lose some of what made them so unbeatable on the biggest stage, they were still fancied to finish inside the top four and were considered a major challenger.

However, it soon fell apart when Danny McGuire picked up an opening game injury. Persistent problems throughout the year would then see him only make a handful of appearances. Compounding this problem was the fact there was no natural understudy. The year before Liam Sutcliffe could be drafted in, but now Sutcliffe himself was considered the first-choice option alongside McGuire.

Elsewhere, new signing Beau Falloon struggled with injuries forcing Leeds to play with a spine of Sutcliffe, Jordan Lilley and Rob Burrow and on occasion Leeds didn’t even have the luxury of running with that trio when further injuries came their way.

In the end, the Rhinos struggled and at one stage looked headed for relegation. Ultimately, they were able to battle their way to ninth in the table but that doesn’t change the fact that the season was a failure for the club who’d dominated the league for the 10 previous years. It was the first time that the Rhinos had failed to make the play-offs and left all associated with the club disappointed. It’s a situation every dominant team, including the current top dogs St Helens, fear.

Now I know what you’re going to say: Leeds won the 2017 Grand Final. They did and they were very good that season but they were also very lucky with injuries and also stumbled across the sensation that was Joel Moon in the halves which worked to a tee. Had they again picked up the odd injury, then 2017 could’ve been a rerun of 2016 and to me that’s enough to diagnose the problem at Headingley. They never replaced Kevin Sinfield.

Sinfield had been Leeds’ organiser and captain since 2003 and as soon as he announced his impending retirement in 2015, the big question was, how will Leeds cope without him? Liam Sutcliffe seemed to be the answer given his outstanding form in 2015 and that was a fine solution one that I’m not going to criticise. The problem was, he came into 2016 on the back of a long-term injury and there were no further options behind him in the squad. This meant that when McGuire got injured all the pressure fell on him and it just didn’t work for the youngster.

Add that to the loss of key players like Paul Aiton, Kyle Leuluai and Jamie Peacock, and the Rhinos had clearly lost some of their cutting edge and simply couldn’t compete in the way they would’ve wanted to. They became a shadow of their former selves.

So, what can St Helens learn from this? After a dominant four years in which they’ve finished top twice, won the Grand Final twice and claimed one Challenge Cup, they’re facing a winter of change. It could yet be a winter of change after an autumn of success if they complete the double with a third Grand Final triumph in October. But such a triumph would see them in virtually the exact same spot as Leeds five years ago.

The Saints are losing key halfback Theo Fages, vital fullback Lachlan Coote, star centre Kevin Naiqama and potent backrowers James Bentley and Joel Thompson. Granted, the Saints have brought in some exciting faces to fill those voids but haven’t drafted in a single halfback or fullback.

Just as with Sutcliffe in 2016, I understand why. Lewis Dodd has been a revelation and looks like a star of the future and perfectly capable of being a star of the present as well. Meanwhile, Jack Welsby deserves a crack at fullback. A brilliant and exciting player he deserves to be given a shot at the number one jersey but what happens when the Saints pick up injuries in key positions next year?

This year Saints have found it easy to cope with injuries in their spine. No Lachlan Coote? No problem, Jack Welsby will step in. No Theo Fages? Lewis Dodd will step up. But next year those two will be the first-choice options in those roles so what happens if they get injured or if Jonny Lomax picks up another problem after all he hasn’t got the greatest history when it comes to avoiding injuries. Suddenly, the Saints have a massive problem after just one injury. Now, you might say James Roby will just come into the halves and Joey Lussick will step into nine. That’s a fine solution although it would take away quite a bit from Roby’s game whilst asking him to play bigger minutes than they perhaps want him to if Lussick’s arrival is anything to go by.

But that’s certainly a possible solution. But what’s the answer should Saints find themselves in a similar situation to what they’ve been in recently. What if they pick up a pair of injuries in the spine, a pair of injuries in the halves? For that possibility there is no clear cut answer and to me that’s a worry and a very similar situation to the one Leeds found themselves in when they sunk to 9th in 2016.

I’m not predicting a similar season for the Saints, but as they begin a transition from one team to the next, perhaps they need to learn what not to do from the Rhinos and look at the market for a back-up halfback which is something they’ve yet to do. I’m sure Leeds wish they’d have brought in someone in 2016. After all they then continued to struggle for halfbacks until recently.

The Saints cannot afford to find themselves in the same spot. For them, to maximise the potential of Dodd and Welsby, this transition needs to be effective and a safety net behind the two wouldn’t be such a bad idea especially if the Rhinos’ plight in 2016 is anything to by.

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