As 2017 rapidly draws to an end, we find ourselves reflecting on the Super League season gone by and looking ahead to 2018, which promises to be another fascinating year of Rugby League.
Not for the first time as we reflect we are looking back on another Grand Final victory for the Leeds Rhinos, who back in early October picked up their eighth title since 2004 and second in three years.
Castleford Tigers were the dominant side throughout 2017, but despite finishing the Super 8s with 50 points – 10 ahead of the Rhinos after 30 fixtures, Daryl Powell’s side were not able to pick up a maiden Super League trophy, as a Danny McGuire masterclass at Old Trafford secured a 24-6 victory for Brian McDermott’s side, with the Rhinos answering their 2016 critics in the best possible way.
Of Leeds’ eight Super League titles, 2017 was perhaps the most impressive, as it was the first they have lifted without legendry captain, Kevin Sinfield, and only the second without Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, after the trio ended their career at Leeds in 2015. Leeds were not well fancied to topple the Tigers at Old Trafford, and having flirted with relegation in 2016, it was an achievement in itself finishing inside Super League’s top-four after 30 fixtures.
However, McGuire and Rob Burrow, who like Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai in 2015, were leaving their boyhood club at the end of 2017, managed to sign off in the best possible way, with McGuire in particular producing one of his finest performances in a Leeds shirt to guide his side to Grand Final victory.
McGuire, who will link-up with Hull KR for the 2018 season, scored twice in the final, whilst also adding two drop goals in a stunning captain’s performance, which led to him lifting the trophy with teammate, Burrow, who will be retiring from the game.
With the duo departing, Leeds’ old guard of Sinfield, McGuire and Burrow, have now gone, having led the club through a golden generation. McDermott will be tasked with rebuilding the Rhinos once again, but will hope that in the immediate future, his side go better than they did in 2016, the year after the departure of Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai.
In 2016 Leeds flirted with relegation, and but for a late flourish in the Middles 8s, McDermott’s side might not have even been in Super League in 2017, with relegation looking a real possibility at one point. However, Leeds rebuilt and were back to the top of the competition this year, with 2016 looking more like a freak result than something that will be happening regularly.
McDermott will be looking to prevent Leeds declining once again in 2018, despite the departure of McGuire and Burrow. Leeds have moved to release their new home strip for next season, along with their squad numbers for the campaign, which are now unrecognisable from two years ago, when the No.13 jersey belonged to Sinfield, whilst the No.6 and No.7 were worn with pride by McGuire and Burrow.
— Leeds Rhinos (@leedsrhinos) November 4, 2017
Leeds’ new-look squad are not well fancied to lift a ninth Super League title in 2018, with Castleford, Wigan Warriors and St Helens all expected to perform better than them next year. With their odds likely to shorten in the coming months amidst rumours of new signings, many betting enthusiasts have taken advantage of the competitive online gambling free bets market in order to bolster their rugby league betting.
The departure of McGuire and Burrow mean that Leeds will have a new No.6 and No.7 for the first time since 2002, with Joel Moon and Richie Myler handed those respective jerseys. Moon, formerly wore the number four for the Rhinos, will takeover McGuire’s six jersey, but the position is not unfamiliar to the Australian, who played as a stand-off throughout the 2017 campaign, partnering McGuire, whilst Burrow’s opportunities were limited at hooker through injury.
Moon had an exceptional season at stand-off for Leeds, scoring 15 tries, second only to Matt Parcell, whilst also adding nine assists from his new creative position. McDermott will be hoping Moon can have a similar impact in the halves in 2018 alongside his new partner, Myler, who has arrived at Headingley on a three-year deal from the Catalan Dragons, returning to England after a short spell in France.
Whilst the Rhinos supporters are pleased to see their club moving on from McGuire and Burrow, there are genuine fears that the new half-back partnership does not have the organisation qualities of the retiring duo, which could leave the Rhinos short of structure. Jordan Lilley and Liam Sutcliffe, the latter who has taken Moon’s place at left centre, are both capable of playing in the halves, but immediate faith will be put in Moon and Myler.
Moon often played off the back of McGuire last season, and the likelihood is the plan for 2018 will be for Myler to take control in the halves, whilst Moon plays an unpredictable game from stand-off. Whilst there are doubts about the duo’s ability to play alongside each other, it is an exciting attacking partnership that could prove to be a stroke of genius from McDermott. However, Moon and Myler will only perform if their forwards give them a platform to play off.
Not much has changed in Leeds’ pack heading into 2018, with only a slight change in numbers. Brad Singleton has been rewarded for a fine 2017 with the No. 10 jersey, with Adam Cuthbertson switching to the No.8 shirt, indicating the duo will be Leeds’ first choice props, whilst Anthony Mullally (16) and Mitch Garbutt (17) provide back-up in the front row.
McDermott’s side remain strong in the second-row and back-row, with Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Carl Ablett, Stevie Ward, Brett Delaney, Brett Ferres and Jimmy Keinhorst all in contention, whilst Keith Galloway, who is recovering from injury, and new signing, Nathaniel Peteru, will provide cover for an exciting pack.
The task of bossing the Rhinos’ pack around will go to Parcell, who has once again been awarded the No.9 jersey. McDermott will be hoping that his Australian hooker can build on his debut season in Super League, after a seriously impressive year in English rugby. The 25-year-old was the driving force behind Leeds’ triumph in 2017, scoring 17 tries and laying on a further 16 for his teammates, form that earned him a place in the Super League Dream Team – Leeds’ only inclusion.
Last season Parcell was supported by Burrow, but only on occasion, with the Australian proving on more than one occasion that he was able to complete 80 minutes of rugby. Regardless, Leeds have moved to bring in support for Parcell in 2018, with Brad Dwyer arriving at Headingley on a two-year deal from Warrington. The 24-year-old has been handed the number 14 jersey for the upcoming season, with the expectancy that he will play the supporting role at hooker, as he has done throughout his career.
As important as Moon and Myler will be in the halves, Parcell and Dwyer will be at dummy-half. Although the likelihood is that neither will be on the pitch at the same time, they must work well as a unit, similar to how James Roby and Kieron Cunningham worked at St Helens, when the former was coming into the first-team and the latter bowing out. The duo shared time on the field over 80 minutes, making sure Saints had fresh legs in the hooking role throughout a contest – McDermott must follow suit.
Parcell will be the man McDermott trusts heading into the season, and the 25-year-old is likely to be the key man once again at Headingley, but Dwyer has the potential to provide able cover, with the ex-Warrington man having plenty of Super League experience. The combination between Parcell, McGuire, Burrow and Moon last year was key at hooker and half-back, and Leeds will need Myler and Dwyer to settle into that combination if they are to have similar success.
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) July 17, 2017
McDermott has once again shown his hand in revealing the squad numbers for his outside backs, with Sutcliffe’s switch to the No.4 shirt confirming he will continue at left centre, just as he did last season following Moon’s switch to the halves. On the opposite side of the pitch Kallum Watkins has once again retained the No.3 jersey, and the England centre will be looking to enhance his reputation as one of the world’s best in 2018.
Outside Sutcliffe will be England’s Ryan Hall, whilst Tom Briscoe, who like McGuire scored twice in the 2017 Grand Final, will be on the opposite side continuing his partnership with Watkins. McDermott’s only selection headache is likely to come at full-back, where Ashton Golding will be competing with Jack Walker for a starting berth.
Like last season, Golding has been handed the No.1 jersey, whilst Walker will wear 24 having been promoted from 31, after the 18-year-old enjoyed a superb breakthrough year. Whilst handing Golding the No.1 jersey indicates he will be first choice, that will not be the case, as last season, Walker emerged as McDermott’s preference, starting in the Super League semi-final and Grand Final ahead of Golding.
Of course, both will gain an opportunity over the course of the season at full-back, but there is a chance we will see Golding used as more of a utility, with the 21-year-old able to cover on the wing, centre and in the halves if required. It is a tough call for McDermott as to who he will play against Warrington in Leeds’ opening game of the 2018 season, but the likelihood is, if everyone is fit, we will see Walker once again picked ahead of Golding.
The rest of Leeds’ squad will be made up of the club’s youngsters, who like Golding and Walker will be looking for an opportunity over the course of next season.
McDermott will be reasonably pleased with his squad of players but will be turning to his forwards to replicate the form they showed in 2017, to give Leeds to their best possible chance of defending their title. The experience in the pack should be enough to provide a solid base to work from, but ultimately Leeds’ success will come off the back of the performances of Parcell, Moon and Myler. McDermott can trust Parcell and will be excited, if a little bit apprehensive, about his new six and seven combination.
Leeds know Moon and Myler will provide moments of magic in attack, but what McDermott will want is one of the duo to stand up and take responsibility, just as McGuire did against Castleford in the 2017 Grand Final.
McGuire and Burrow were big game players, just like Sinfield was. 2018 will be the first time this Millennium they have not had one of the trio in their ranks, and someone will have to really take control. There will be fixtures where Leeds get away without having a natural organiser, but on occasions like the Grand Final or clashes with the likes of Castleford, St Helens and Wigan, they will need someone to produce a performance to shadow McGuire’s final performance.
2018 is a big year for the Rhinos, as McDermott plots his rebuilding of Super League’s most successful club. Leeds struggled to adapt to life after Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai retired in 2015, and McDermott will want to avoid a repeat of the year that followed, where relegation was a real possibility.
Without the likes of McGuire and Burrow, so soon after the retirement of Sinfield, Leeds’ supporters will accept that their club is going through a transitional period and they will not be expected to dominate the competition as they have done in previous years. If you asked McDermott now, he would probably bite your arm off at a top-four finish, but realistically, Leeds’ squad looks like one that will compete, but not excel, with Castleford sure to get stronger, whilst the likes of Hull, St Helens and Wigan will compete, as always.
However, history has taught us never to write off a Rhino, and McDermott’s squad could be well worth watching this season.