Super League restart: Leeds Rhinos head coach Richard Agar on coaching in the time of coronavirus
When the Leeds Rhinos squad were finally allowed to return to working together as a group midway through July, Richie Myler’s mode of transport became an unusual focal point for the players.
The protocols in place to combat the risk of infection from coronavirus mean the only indoor facility at the ground the team have access to is the gym – and even then that is strictly limited to eight players and one staff member at a time with a one-way system in and out.
Those extend to the players having to bring their own food as well, but Rhinos head coach Richard Agar is delighted to see them in high spirits after four months of training alone, along with being amused by how they have adopted Myler’s camper van as a new post-training, socially-distanced meeting point.
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“I think when they got back, just the pleasure and happiness of being back, and the camaraderie, even the fact we’re not allowed to use the building – we can only use the gym, not the changing rooms – the guys are sat out in the car park around Richie Myler’s camper van,” Agar said.
“They’re bringing their fishing chairs and deckchairs, and their packed lunches. So far, while the weather has held off, it has almost added to the spirit the guys have got between them to experience this difference and make the best of the situation they’re in at the moment.
“I’m sure when it rains that might cause a few more problems! But, for the time being, we’ve come back in really good nick and very good spirits too.”
It is not all jovial though and the sight of team manager Jason Davidson in a mask, gloves and protective covering while holding a thermometer to conduct temperature checks is a sober reminder the pandemic has not gone away.
The coaching and support staff have had to adapt too. As part of their track and trace efforts, Leeds’ video analysts now have to spend time studying training to highlight which players have been in close contact – defined as more than three seconds – should any show symptoms or test positive for covid.
Agar and his coaches have endeavoured to keep the same small groups together for contact and wrestling, along with being mindful of doing things like avoiding having the front-row forwards working together so they do not all have to isolate at the same time if one falls ill.
It even extends to areas such as having to disinfect the balls and tackle bags after each use, and not sharing bibs which are put in a plastic bag to be washed at the end of each session. However, Agar does not believe the extra precautions have disrupted the players too much.
“It’s been an adaptation in pretty much every single area,” Agar said. “It makes your days longer, it takes a lot more work and thought, and a lot of looking back on the day to see what has happened.
If you ask the players, they would all say it has not really affected training too much. We’ve got ourselves organised, they get on the field, do their stuff and get off the field pretty much like a normal week.
“But we’ve got used to it and if you ask the players, they would all say it has not really affected training too much. We’ve got ourselves organised, they get on the field, do their stuff and get off the field pretty much like a normal week.
“We’ve got staff furloughed and we haven’t got all of our staff because of the finance issues, so it’s all hands to the pump. But even given all of those issues, the players have ridden through all right and got their training pretty well.”
While some have referred to the period ahead of Super League’s restart this Sunday, which sees the Rhinos take on Huddersfield Giants behind closed doors at Headingley, as a mini-pre-season, Agar has taken the point of view that has been simply two weeks to prepare for a game.
He was impressed to find the players returned to training in good physical condition after a long period of training on their own, along with being impressed with how quickly they got back up to speed with the various plays they deploy during matches.
“We’ve got a calling system and with four months of not using it, even as a coach we felt a bit rusty getting the plays rolling off your tongue and our style of football,” Agar said.
“Before they came back, we put some vision together and gradually fed in saying ‘these are our good-ball tap starts, this is what this is called, look how this set evolves and what it does to the opposition’, and try to put some refreshers in there for the guys to re-familiarise themselves with everything.
“Over a seven to 10-day period we sent a couple of videos out every day – not long, around four or five minutes – but the positive for us is we don’t feel we’ve had to revisit too much what we consider the really important stuff.”
On the playing side, arguably the biggest change the Rhinos and the other clubs in Super League will have to adapt to is the new ‘six again’ rule for certain ruck infringements.
We think the way we play is the way we play and if we get six agains it will just present a few more opportunities for us at some points.
“We’ve had a bit of fun with that,” Agar, who has invested in an air horn to keep his squad on their toes when practising game scenarios, said.
“Sometimes we do it where it’s not a penalty too, just to get guys used to showing a bit of resilience this set and get on with it.
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