Leeds Rhinos rediscover identity with Blake Austin bespoke for new ethos

Returning to Halliwell Jones Stadium for the first time since leaving, the 31-year-old enjoyed a night to remember as the Rhinos delivered their best performance of the year.

Rohan Smith’s men blew the beleaguered Wolves by playing fast and straight, a bespoke game plan for a runner like Austin.

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In the three games since Smith officially took charge last month, Austin has averaged 16 carries for 92 yards.

Blake Austin will be a Leeds Rhinos player in 2023. (Photo: SWPix.com)

To put that into context, the half-back has averaged 47 yards in eight runs in his first nine outings for Leeds.

It may be a small sample, but Smith’s message is clear: do what you do best.

It’s no wonder, then, that the playmaker liked the new Rhinos boss.

After activating the option in his contract for a second year at Headingley in 2023, Austin spoke like a man who once again believes in what he is doing.

Blake Austin is known for his running game. (Photo: SWPix.com)

“I enjoyed working with Rohan Smith,” Austin said.

“Everyone I spoke to who knew him from Australia held him in high regard and he is a huge influence on the team as a whole.

“I think Jamie Jones-Buchanan also deserves a lot of credit for the work he did while in charge and Rohan built on that.

“The team plays with a smile because of the confidence we give in games thanks to the hard work we put in in training.”

Zak Hardaker had fun against Warrington. (Photo: SWPix.com)

Austin isn’t the only player to benefit from the change in philosophy.

Kruise Leeming and Zak Hardaker had a day on the pitch at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, producing the kind of performances that will make them impossible to ignore when Shaun Wane sits down to select his England squad for the mid-season game against England. Combined Nations All Stars.

The Rhinos’ first thought under Smith is to go forward rather than sideways, which brings a dangerous runner like Leeming into the game.

The hooker was at his best in the 40-4 win over Warrington, completing the match try and carrying two more.

Rohan Smith makes a good impression at Headingley. (Photo: SWPix.com)

Leeming covered 134 meters in 15 carries, 11 of which came from the half-dummy, smashing his previous season record of six.

The biggest difference last week was that Leeming was confident that he would have teammates on his shoulder if he took even half a break.

Hardaker has certainly injected energy into the team and looks comfortable in his preferred full-back position.

The 30-year-old scored his first try since returning to Leeds and didn’t stop overnight, conceding 20 shots from 191 yards.

He played a starring role in Leeming’s spellbinding try, taking Richie Myler’s remarkable inside ball to characteristically clear before finding his hooker in support.

For fans hungry for rugby entertainment lately, it was a moment to savor.

Rhyse Martin is out of contract at the end of the year. (Photo: SWPix.com)

Naturally, Leeds supporters want more, but it’s important to manage expectations.

Although there were tangible signs of progress against Warrington, back-to-back away dates with Huddersfield Giants, St Helens and Hull FC will provide a clearer picture.

The short-term goal is to make the play-offs, a very achievable goal provided they go through a credit road test.

Longer term, the Rhinos are working to bring back the glory days to Headingley.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour, a mantra Smith lives by as he embarks on a long-term project at one of Super League’s biggest clubs.

The Australian has already earned a reputation as a coach who never looks too far ahead, at least when it comes to matters on the pitch.

Having inherited a team left behind by Richard Agar, Smith has the chance to put his stamp on it as the club prepares for 2023.

He made retention a priority, with Leeds announcing new deals for Corey Johnson, Jarrod O’Connor and Austin in the space of a week.

As Leeds work hard behind the scenes on potential new signings, the club have shown they appreciate the value of keeping hold of players who are already playing blue and amber, or even pink.

The out-of-contract pair Hardaker and Rhyse Martin certainly fall into this category, two players with the tools to thrive under Smith in the long run.

The gloom of the start of the season has given way to renewed optimism with the promise of a more exciting rugby league.

The sport can be temperamental and the new found faith in the side will be tested over the coming weeks – but Leeds appear to have rediscovered their identity.

“It’s been a tough start to life here at the club,” Austin said. “But we’re all pulling together and I think good times are ahead of us.”

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