If there was one game which epitomised Leeds Rhinos’ turnaround in fortunes during the 2022 Betfred Super League season, then as far as Cameron Smith is concerned it is last July’s stunning golden-point win away to Catalans Dragons.
Trailing 24-6 in the scorching Perpignan heat and down to 12 men following Matt Prior’s red card for a high tackle, the Rhinos somehow managed to claw their way back and send the game into extra-time before Aidan Sezer came up with the try which clinched a 36-32 triumph.
For back row Smith, it showed how far Leeds had come since Rohan Smith’s appointment as head coach two months earlier after a dismal start to the campaign which had seen the eight-time Super League champions embroiled in the relegation battle.
Indeed, neither the 24-year-old or his team-mates envisaged at that stage they would end the season walking out at Old Trafford to face reigning champions St Helens in the Grand Final.
“A lot of us probably couldn’t see a way out at that point,” Smith, who played as a makeshift half-back during that 24-12 defeat against Saints, told Sky Sports. “We spent more time under the sticks than we should have been.
“So, when Rohan came in and the transition started happening, we developed that belief and just knowing how to win games, even though they were really tight we could end up with the win.
“At the start of the year, we were coming close and falling short, so we were in a difficult position, but what a transformation. The main thing was playing with a smile on our face regardless of what was going on and the noise around us.
“Credit to the lads, I know it’s cliche to say it, but we had to dig in deep and find a lot out of ourselves not only as a team but as individuals to get to that Grand Final at the end of the year.”
A sign of how the Rhinos have been doing things differently since the Australian, whose uncle Tony – now overseeing Hull FC – enjoyed a successful coaching spell at Headingley earlier in his career, took charge is the decision not to appoint a full-time captain for the 2023 season.
Smith was one of the players who filled that role in games last year along with Kruise Leeming, Ash Handley and the currently-injured Mikolaj Oledzki, and believes having different voices taking charge will prove beneficial for the whole squad.
“My leadership role would be I like to organise, I like speaking to people, I’m approachable, I’m a student of the game and I actually love the game,” Smith said.
I do want to see myself as a leader and I want to spend as much time leading people as I can. Likewise, I want people to influence me with their way, and whatever the team needs is what needs to happen.
Leeds forward Cameron Smith
“Leadership to me is measured by how good a person you can be to people around you, and in terms of on the field it would be doing the stuff people don’t want to do or what we should be doing in terms of driving standards and being a good communicator in the middle of the field – especially in my role.
“Then there are players in our team who have got experience and rugby league-smart players who will bring their own thoughts. As long as we can all chip in, I think it will work really well.
“I do want to see myself as a leader and I want to spend as much time leading people as I can. Likewise, I want people to influence me with their way and whatever the team needs is what needs to happen.”
The Pontefract-born, former Castleford Panthers junior has made over 100 appearances for the Rhinos since making his debut in 2016 and is already considered one of the more senior members of the squad despite his relative youth.
He is one of the more recent graduates of Leeds’ renowned academy which continues to produce Super League-standard players which form the backbone of the squad, and Smith is in no doubt the off-season addition of winger Derrell Olpherts and Samoa international forward Sam Lisone will add to the homegrown talent.
“It’s different when you come through the system,” Smith said. “You know how heavy the badge is and how it is such a prestigious thing to play for the Rhinos and to be involved with them for a number of years is an honour.
“If you look back when Leeds have been successful in the past, they’ve kept a core of players together.
“There are a core of players I’ve come up playing with, and if we can drip-feed a bit of experience and quality in there like we have done, we’re in for a good year and a good, successful period with the Rhinos.”
Live Betfred Super League
February 16, 2023, 7:30pm
Despite the improbable run to the Grand Final last year, Leeds were unable to prevent St Helens from securing a fourth-straight Super League title and breaking the Rhinos’ record of three consecutive Grand Final wins in the summer era.
Leeds’ quest to get back to Old Trafford and go one further in 2023 starts in the season opener away to Warrington Wolves on Thursday, live on Sky Sports, and Smith knows what it will take to prevent Saints triumphing again.
“The word for that is consistency,” Smith said. “If we can start the year like we did the back end of last year, I think we’ll put ourselves in good stead.
“There are a couple of individual players who have come in to influence our team, so as long as we’re all on the same page and consistently working hard in what we need to do, there is no reason we can’t go one further.”
The new Super League season starts on Thursday, February 16 as Warrington Wolves host Leeds Rhinos. Watch 66 live matches, including Magic Weekend, the play-offs and the Grand Final, on Sky Sports in 2023 and stream on NOW TV.
This post is originally appeared on Sky News