The 2015 Super League regular season reaches its half-way point this weekend and no coach in the competition will be more satisfied at this stage of the campaign than Leeds head coach Brian McDermott.
With all sides having played each other once, Leeds sit six points clear at the top of the table having lost just one of their opening 11 fixtures. The Rhinos have won their last six matches and have scored 113 points more than the second-highest scorers in the league, Warrington.
Leeds have underperformed during the regular rounds in recent seasons and have relied on good end of season form and play-off success to galvanise something from their league campaign.
This season however, the Rhinos look the real deal and Friday’s 41-16 demolition of champions St Helens demonstrated that Leeds are the team to beat.
The Challenge Cup holders outclassed Saints at Langtree Park in what was billed as their toughest challenge of the season so far.
But what was most impressive, and what will have pleased head coach Brian McDermott, was despite all of the experienced players Leeds had out on the field, it was the youngsters who ran the show and rightfully made the headlines.
19 year-old winger Ash Handley has been given his opportunity in the first team in recent weeks due to injuries to Tom Briscoe and Ryan Hall. The youngster has repaid the faith put in him by his coach and after his hat-trick against St Helens has now scored six tries in his six appearances.
His interception try to open the scoring on Friday was something you would expect to see from an experienced figure. Handley knew that Leeds were outnumbered out-wide and Saints were likely to score. The youngster took the risk to intercept Josh Jones’ pass and ran 90 metres to score his first of three tries on the night.
Leeds have been a dominant force in the Super League era having won six titles between 2004 and 2012. The core of that side still remains at Headingley, with the likes of Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Danny McGuire still leading the team around the pitch each week.
But like all successful sporting sides, there’s a question over how the team reacts once that core of players leave. The departures of Peacock and Sinfield at the end of this season have already been announced. Peacock will retire and take on the role of Football Manager at Hull KR and Sinfield, who has been Leeds captain since 2002, will switch codes and play for Yorkshire Carnegie.
Both Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow are 32, Kylie Leuluia 37 and Jamie Jones-Buchanan 33. While these players have been influential in the Rhinos’ success on the pitch, they are a part of an aging squad and there are fears amongst Leeds fans about what will happen when they no longer grace the Headingley turf.
Two other clubs have faced this dilemma in recent years. St Helens suffered when the likes of Sean Long, Keiron Cunningham and Paul Sculthorpe retired and finally came through that period of transition last season by winning the Grand Final.
Warrington are currently going through the transition having lost Lee Briers, Brett Hodgson and Michael Monaghan in recent seasons. Head coach Tony Smith is still struggling to replace their influence and the Wolves have taken a step backwards since their departures.
Whilst Leeds could suffer a similar fate, there was more than enough evidence on display on Friday that the products from their academy will be capable of bridging the gap.
Young stand-off Liam Sutcliffe lead his side like an experienced-pro, as the 20 year-old kept Sinfield out of the starting line-up for the first time since 2003.
His beautifully weighted cross-field kick to set up Handley’s third try was something you would expect to see from Sinfield. The intelligence to know that the St Helens defence was stranded in the centre of the field and then the vision and execution of the kick into the corner was superb.
Sutcliffe’s goal-kicking is another attribute he possesses and can help quell fears over Sinfield’s departure at the end of the season.
Kallum Watkins and Zak Hardaker are other examples of the youth players making the most of their opportunity in the first team and have now become regulars.
Watkins, 24, is considered one of the best centres in the competition and has scored 20+ tries in the last three seasons.
Despite certain off-field problems, Hardaker took over the full-back position from Brent Webb in 2013 and was named in the Super League Dream Team last season.
Other under 19s players such as Ashton Golding, Robbie Ward and Andy Yates have also been given their first-team chances this season and will look to capitalise further before the end of the campaign.
Whilst the thought of Peacock and Sinfield no longer lining up for Leeds each week will send shivers down the spines of some fans, the future looks bright for the Rhinos.