Rugby League: Eagles exodus heartens Leeds

Dave Hadfield talks to a scrum-half who is returning to a familiar fortress today
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The Independent Online
For some members of a revitalised Leeds party, this evening's match at Sheffield will be a journey into the deeply familiar. When Gary Hetherington moved from the Don Valley Stadium to Headingley this winter, he brought three of the Eagles with him.

Dean Lawford is out of action with a broken hand, but the other two who fled the nest are playing their parts in a change of personality which is making Leeds, if not yet a good side, then at least a difficult side to beat.

"Things are slowly falling into place," said Ryan Sheridan, who is settling in as scrum-half, inside the record signing, Iestyn Harris. "There's quite a way to go yet, but when we click it looks good. The main thing is the defence; that's what we had to sort out and we are doing."

Sheridan had five years at Sheffield after being head-hunted by Hetherington from the fertile nursery at Dewsbury Moor that also produced Lawford and their Leeds team-mate, Francis Cummins. "The move to Leeds came out of the blue. In fact, it came as a bit of a shock when Gary moved from Sheffield. We were all wondering what was going on."

What was going on was a decisive change of direction at Headingley, with a takeover by the Castleford businessman Paul Caddick, and the installation of Hetherington, the founder and driving force at Sheffield, as chief executive. When the chance came to follow him, Sheridan did not hesitate. "Leeds are a big club. That's why I wanted to come here," he said.

A big club, yes, but one prone to serial under-achievement. There have been so many false dawns in the past that one hesitates to comment on the brightening sky, but the signs are there that Leeds are acquiring an honesty and durability that has been missing.

"It's all about commitment and being willing to fight to the death," Sheridan said. That necessity has been illustrated vividly over the last three matches, in which they have lost to Wigan by one point, beaten St Helens by the same margin and Castleford by three points - all in the last couple of minutes.

The scorer of the vital try against Castleford was Anthony Farrell, another who has joined the exodus from Sheffield to Leeds. Unlike Sheridan, Farrell was not a full-time professional at the Eagles and, since he has given up his day job, the benefits have been obvious.

Now that Farrell is established in a regular position in the second row, he could indeed begin to live up to the extravagant description that dogged him through his formative years at Huddersfield - "the new Ellery Hanley". They remember the old one at Headingley, so anything that stands comparison is a welcome addition to the mix.

Sheridan is expecting another tight contest at Sheffield. "We used to call if Fortress Don Valley. We didn't use to lose many there. I hope it's not another last-minute effort - it's not good for the heart."

Maybe not, but Leeds are showing that they now have the heart to go with their ability. And that, in Sheffield or at Headingley, is called progress.