Why Leeds Rhinos may have a choice between past and future with the number one jersey

The story of Leeds Rhinos number one jersey is certainly an interesting one.

After Iestyn Harris left Leeds in 2001, there was a void to be filled there. Gary Connolly was the first one to begin to fill this gap winning the Lance Todd trophy in 2003, but by 2004 it was young upcoming fullback Richie Mathers making waves forcing Connolly out of the side.

Mathers took on the number one shirt in 2005 and looked not only like Leeds’ next great fullback but also England’s until injury and a move to the NRL changed things leaving Leeds with a decision to make with Lee Smith impressing in the role or turning to someone else.

In the end they made a major signing in New Zealand Brent Webb who took to Super League like a duck to water but not a young player eventually Leeds would need a replacement but the replacement presented it to them itself with Zak Hardaker picking up the Young Player of the Year in 2012.

He looked like Leeds’ number 1 for the next 10 or more seasons but things broke down between club and player in 2016 resulting in a move to Penrith prior to a loan to Castleford which he made permanently.

Again, things worked out for the Rhinos as that season saw the emergence of Jack Walker who scored a debut hat-trick at 17 and became Super League’s youngest ever Grand Final winner at just over 18.

Like Hardaker before him, Walker looked set to hold onto the number one shirt for 10 plus years but injuries got in the way playing a handful of games in 2020 and 2021 as Richie Myler inserted himself as Leeds’ first choice fullback.

In 2022, the door finally opened up for him when Myler started the season with an injury. Though it was clear that Walker was still trying to get back to the heights he achieved pre-injury after missing all of 2021.

Then Walker was cruelly struck by another injury which only exacerbated a growing injury crisis at the club which saw them start three teenagers two games in a row just after Easter which led to the club calling upon Zak Hardaker once again.

Since signing for Leeds, Hardaker has been exceptional whether playing at centre or at fullback. He played a key role in guiding Leeds back to Old Trafford and created Leeds’ first try of the Grand Final. He has also been a constant source of tackle busts and an embodiment of how Rohan Smith’s Leeds team play.

He signed until the end of the year with some Leeds fans unsure whether a long term deal would suit either party. However, Hardaker has proven his worth to the club and if he stays could wrestle back the number one jersey from Walker however it seems unlikely that both will be at the club in 2023.

This is because Leeds Live revealed the latest on Hardaker’s contract with Leeds Chief Executive Gary Hetherington stating that the club wants to keep Hardaker and Hardaker wants to stay but right now the cap space isn’t there.

This could mean that the Rhinos may have to choose between Hardaker and Walker with only space on the cap for one of them. Meanwhile, with Myler at the club and still in brilliant form, the Rhinos only really require one especially if they have signed the dotted line for a centre behind the scenes to replace Liam Sutcliffe.

Walker is contracted until the end of next year but made a real impression on loan at Hull FC. But the Black and Whites are under new management with Tony Smith now taking charge.

So it seems that the future of the Leeds number one jersey is tied up in the past and present of it as well. But who will be wearing the number one for the Rhinos in 2023?

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