Resilience and evolution will underpin Leeds’ bid to reassert their once-customary status as Betfred Super League title contenders when the 2024 season kicks off in a fortnight’s time.
Rohan Smith’s fairytale start to the head-coach role at Headingley, when he lifted them from 11th place to fifth and ultimately a place in the 2022 Grand Final, proved a distant memory during a turbulent 2023 campaign.
But a productive pre-season, which saw the headline arrival of Salford’s former Man of Steel Brodie Croft among six others, has helped convince Smith that the tough times could soon be a thing of the past.
“What we went through last season has made a lot of players and staff resilient,” Smith, whose side’s play-off hopes were ended by injuries and the unscripted departures of key players like Blake Austin and Sam Walters, told the PA news agency.
“There were some tough times in among some really performances, but the resilience of having to fight through the tough bits is something you can only get by going through them.
“It’s been a really productive pre-season. The Croft and (Andy) Ackers situations don’t pop up very often, so it was a chance for us to make a statement. I think we will start as a work in progress and get better.”
Just as he shut out criticism during the more difficult moments of the 2023 season, not least the crushing September defeats by Wigan and Catalans Dragons, Smith is also intent on blocking out the increasing external expectations.
“When we went to the Grand Final I wasn’t reading the paper, and I wasn’t reading the paper when we didn’t make the play-offs,” added Smith.
“I live in my own little bubble and I have to get informed on most things that happen in the real world. I keep my focus on the things I can have an influence on.
“This time last year things were looking OK and that’s probably how we played. This year the characters who have come in have been picked on their personality as well as their playing ability, and there is a real cohesion and consistency in the group.”
Australian full-back Lachie Miller is another high-profile arrival but for Smith the club’s academy remains front and centre to a prospective revival, so the emergence of the likes of homegrown prop Tom Holroyd – who will wear the famous number 10 shirt this season – is of equal importance.
“Tom had a terrific season last year and he’s a player who’s got a lot ahead of him, but he’s also a sign for the rest of the group that there’s an opportunity out there for them.
“It’s up to them to decide what happens with recruitment and retention going forward. The opportunity is there for the young players to emerge and take that jersey.
“That’s the plan moving forward, that we evolve and emerge from within, rather than looking outside for anything more than the necessary components.”