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What does Leeds Rhinos’ semi-final defeat mean for them going into 2022?

On Friday, Leeds played in their first Super League semi-final since 2017. Intriguingly, their 36-8 loss was their first semi-final defeat since 2013 when Leeds went to the DW Stadium as defending Champions only for Wigan to end their reign.

But Friday’s Leeds side was so very different from the side who played in that defeat to Wigan with only one player in that team still contracted to the club in the shape of Liam Sutcliffe. The 17 on Friday was also some way off the 2017 side who downed Hull FC on their way to an eighth Super League title. Only Tom Briscoe played in both the 2017 semi and Friday’s defeat.

That said, the biggest change from Leeds’ previous semi-final showings compared to Friday’s game was absence of that winning mentality which made them to dominant force in Super League from 2004-17. At times, with Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow to lead them around and with Jamie Peacock providing the platform down the middle, Leeds were virtually unbeatable in the biggest games.

These days that’s not the case as we saw on Friday but to just be in the semi-finals is an achievement on the back of a few difficult years. In 2018 and 2019, they looked headed for relegation before turning the corner last term and claiming the Challenge Cup trophy with victory over Salford.

That was evidence that Leeds are headed in the right direction as was their play-off victory over Wigan which took them to a first Super League semi-final for four years. But they still appear a long way off from securing a place at the big dance. So, how do Leeds make the next step and force their way back into the title picture?

The first thing they need to do is learn from their opponents on Friday. St Helens bullied Leeds in the first 30 minutes trapping them within their own 25 metres and easing through the Leeds defence. On paper, a pack including the likes of Mikolaj Oledzki, Matt Prior and Zane Tetevano should’ve put up more of a fight. So, perhaps there was a bit of a mental block? Or perhaps the Leeds middle men weren’t ready after a year of injuries and strain. Matt Prior especially looked devoid of energy perhaps owing to a long and difficult season for him and his charges. Whilst you’d have to question whether or not Oledzki was fully fit after making a remarkable come back from injury.

So, there’s two things Leeds need to change in 2022. They need to avoid injuries – which is easier said than done – so that they aren’t forced to play these big games with injured players or players who have been asked to do more minutes than they usually would in a regular season as was the case with Matt Prior. The second thing is, they need to brunt up and meet fire with fire down the middle in these big games. They have the players to do that but in order to execute it requires a learning curve, after all play-off rugby is a different kettle of fish to regular Super League fixtures which is why last Friday’s defeat isn’t the devastating blow some might view it as.

To learn how to win a semi-final against the top teams, you need experience and Leeds got their first dose of that on Friday. Look at Catalans, last year it was the Dragons suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of St Helens in the semi-finals and a year on they’ve become Grand Finalists in their own right. They’ve made very few personnel changes but have simply learnt from the experiences of last year and translated it into winning play-off rugby.

Leeds simply have to follow in their footsteps. They must take the defeat on the chin and learn from it but it’ll be tough. That said, based on the rate of their development in the last two years, they can make that step after all they took another step closer to Old Trafford this year when compared to 2020 despite the mountain of injuries they’ve had to deal with this compaign.

Another thing that’ll help them head in the right direction is the recruitment they’ve already done ahead of 2022. James Bentley will bring a real competitiveness to the Leeds pack whilst Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer will grant the Rhinos with much needed squad depth in the halves and hopefully sharpen up their attack which hasn’t yielded as many points out wide as you’d expect in 2021.

Assuming Agar’s first choice halfback pairing next year will be Luke Gale and Sezer, the pair will provide smarts and creativity. Hopefully for Leeds fans they’ll be able to carve open defences down the left and right allowing Ash Handley and Harry Newman to flourish. Even if that partnership fails, Blake Austin’s running game will be a perfect plan b.

Leeds perhaps need one or two players more players on top of that. They’re looking for a prop following King Vuniyayawa’s departure but sources also suggest they want more fire power out wide and are looking for a new outside back.

But the role these new faces will play is secondary to the development that needs to occur in house. Leeds are nearly where they want to be, but they have to take on the lessons from Friday’s defeat and use them to become challengers again.

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