New Leeds head coach Rohan Smith must rebuild the culture at Leeds Rhinos if the club is to rediscover its stunning former glories.
The 40-year-old is the nephew of one of the club’s greatest ever coaches Tony Smith and the son of Brian Smith, the ex Hull and Bradford coach. His arrival at Headingley was announced on the same day that his uncle confirmed his own surprise decision to leave Hull KR at the end of the season.
The appointment appears another gamble. Rohan Smith has NRL experience as assistant to his dad at Newcastle and then later at New Zealand Warriors. He has British experience with both London and as head coach of Bradford. He has never coached in Super League and arrives with immediate effect at a club that is in real trouble and showing a frightening lack of direction.
Leeds sit second bottom of Super League and a distant shadow of the iconic side that has won eight Grand Finals since their elusive first in 2004.
I’ve spoken to a number of former players over the past month since Richard Agar’s departure, a resignation that left chief executive Gary Hetherington admitting there was no immediate succession plan, such was the surprise timing of Agar’s early-season exit. With no real depth of candidates presenting themselves on British shores - former Leeds prop and London head coach Danny Ward was the top choice of a shallow pool - a shortlist of oversees contenders was drawn up before Hetherington boarded a flight to Australia to interview them. Smith impressed most, and has got the job.
“Culture is a big word, but it is everything,” Brad Singleton tells me, during a chat on Wednesday as The Rhinos confirmed Smith as their new man.
A treble winner with Leeds in that famous 2015 team and Grand Final winner with the Rhinos again in 2017, Singleton is thriving again at Wigan. He tells me he has been hurt by his former club’s travails but is not surprised by the decline that new coach Smith must now set about repairing.
“I think what happened was the culture that was built up and maintained for so many years of these winning behaviours, and going into a season knowing you are planning for a Grand Final no matter what your form is like, all that has gone because of the change of personnel.
“Now you are starting from the bottom, even though the fans still expect the same winning. I feel like you need to lower that expectation and let them build again.”
In truth the Rhinos have never recovered since the departure of their all-conquering head coach Brian McDermott who after four Grand Finals and two Challenge Cup wins at Leeds is now leading Featherstone’s charge towards a first ever Super League season.
Former player Dave Furner was brought in for a short and ill-fated term, club legend Kevin Sinfield tried to fix what he saw as a crumbling core at the club and set about wiping the slate completely clean before also departing. And most recent head coach Agar resigned earlier this season after becoming frustrated at his inability to get a response from the players he had brought together ahead of a season that promised so much.
I spoke recently to Agar, and without betraying the confidence of those conversations, he has been struggling to get his head around how and why it all ended as it did for him at Headingley.
His departure creates an opportunity for Smith to have a crack at arresting the startling slump and fixing some deep-rooted problems.
Academy coach Chev Walker played under Tony Smith and was also assistant coach to Rohan during his time in charge of Bradford.
Walker says “I know culture gets thrown around without any real meaning or understanding but I played for Tony and he was a game changer. I coached for Rohan and both are equally demanding and inspiring. Get behind this man he won’t fail you.”
Leeds next face Toulouse in a huge clash of the bottom two, before playing Tony Smith’s Hull KR. That will be the last game before Tony’s nephew takes charge.
Rohan Smith will then take the reins and has already set his sights on developing Leeds’ young academy talent, including Sinfield’s son Jack who made his debut over Easter, in a bid to preserve the club’s rich history.
Right now the most immediate concern is to preserve their very status in Super League.