‘Nobody had heard of him’: Smith sparks Rhinos charge into Grand Final

Remember the North Devils’ run towards a first Queensland Cup since 1998 last year? No? That means you probably had no idea who Rohan Smith was when he was appointed head coach of Leeds Rhinos in April. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

“Nobody had heard of him,” says the Leeds forward James Donaldson. “Nobody knew really who he was, other than his family history.”

That family history is certainly unique. Smith’s father, Brian, coached Bradford with great success in the 1990s while his uncle Tony was the Leeds coach when they lifted the Super League title for the first time in 2004. Fast forward 18 years and the latest member of the Smith family to become a head coach will aim to emulate that feat at Old Trafford against St Helens.

But how he and his players have reached this point is anything but a repeat of history. When Smith was prised away from Norths Devils, the Rhinos were more likely to be relegated than win a record-extending ninth Super League Grand Final. They were a point clear of the league’s bottom side, Toulouse, and Leeds made it abundantly clear their gamble on a coach who had never taken charge of a game at the highest level was viewed as a long-term appointment.

“As captain, I’ll admit I didn’t know who he was,” says Kruise Leeming. “But Gary [Hetherington, the Leeds chief executive] came to the players and explained why they believed he was the right man. From that point on, you’re interested and your ears perk up.”

Even the players Smith has dragged close to the most remarkable title success in the modern era say they could not have seen this coming. “It wasn’t a happy place,” says Donaldson. “We weren’t enjoying our rugby, we didn’t feel together and then the club appoints a coach you don’t really know anything about. But after the first week with us, he blew everyone’s mind.”

Leeds have won 11 of their past 13 games under Smith to reach Old Trafford once again and go from outsiders to make the play-offs to a team nobody appears capable of writing off against the reigning champions on Saturday evening.

“I spoke to people who knew him and they explained about his coaching style being a real breath of fresh air,” says Leeds’ Zak Hardaker. “A change to what they’d been used to.

“I have to say, having worked with him, I really enjoy it. He’s very different and you can tell he’s got those Smith family genes; he’s a bit of an innovator and a believer in doing things differently.”

Different is somewhat of an understatement. Smith’s only other senior coaching role of note was a spell in charge of Bradford Bulls in the Championship in 2017, which ultimately ended with him losing his job – not due to poor performance, but because the club was liquidated. Those who worked with him during that time recall being enamoured by Smith’s desire to do things differently.

The club’s training ground had reading and relaxing rooms installed. Smith, a keen fan of the NBA and NFL, would often impart his learnings from those sports to his players, something that has been carried over to his time with Leeds. “He’s always teaching but he’s also always keen to keep learning and that’s one of the first things I noticed about him,” says Leeming. “He’s a real student of the game and he’s a real deep thinker to boot.”

But the one thing those who have worked with Smith feel best describes him as a coach is his ability to unite. That has been evident in the remarkable transformation of Leeds’ season.

Smith’s last game in charge of Norths was against Ipswich Jets. There were 300 people there. On Saturday, almost 65,000 will be present to see if he can complete the most incredible turnaround in Super League history.