Teenager Ward looks to finish on high at Old Trafford

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And so it is Huddersfield and the newly-titled John Smith’s Stadium as the next stop on Stevie Ward’s magical mystery tour of all things rugby league.

Obviously, it is neither as grandiose as Wembley, nor as sophisticated as Perpignan or as famous as Odsal but it is another venue ticked off nonetheless.

Unsurprisingly, the Leeds Rhinos tyro has already tasted it once before after playing a Challenge Cup semi-final there in July.

Considering the remarkable progress of the teenager’s burgeoning career so far, there would be no real shock if Old Trafford was the next crossed off that fast-shrinking list in the near future.

Ward admits he has yet to draw breath to “take in” all that has happened during his breakthrough season.

The 18-year-old came off the bench to play a pivotal role in last Friday night’s 46-12 destruction of Salford City Reds – coming less than a week after starting in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

Ward is set to be involved yet again tomorrow in Rhinos’ final regular round of Super League as the defending champions bid to claim the crucial fourth spot ahead of the play-offs.

With his A-level results safely pocketed too the half-back/second-row – a regular since debuting in April – has been fully ensconced in a hectic period of his young life.

“It’s all been a bit of a blur,” Ward admitted to the Yorkshire Post, having also turned down England Academy’s Australia tour to secure his Leeds place.

“It’s all merged into one and none of it has really sunk in yet.

“After this season, I’m going to have to take it all in then... talk to my family, sit down with them, speak to my friends and look back on this all as a real positive.”

The story is, of course, yet unfinished with the West Yorkshire club intent on putting their Wembley loss against Warrington Wolves behind them to march on to Manchester.

They made history by winning the Grand Final from fifth last season, when Ward was still making strides in the club’s Academy.

“We’ll take inspiration from last year and this bunch of lads know they can do it for a second season in a row,” he added.

“We just need to dig deep and put 100 per cent in.

“It’s going to be tough over the next few weeks but hopefully we can grab that fourth spot and, if it doesn’t happen, then we’ll work to the same goal of getting to that Grand Final regardless.

“We’re not looking at the table too much; we just want to be putting performances in every week on the pitch – like we did against Salford – and head into the play-offs playing well.”

The emphatic manner of that victory over Salford was the perfect response to losing a third successive Challenge Cup final.

Ward, whose slick handling created a number of tries, admitted: “When we get a setback like that (Wembley) we all work towards a good performance.

“That’s what this squad is like. They are a great bunch.

“Salford aren’t an easy team to beat and they didn’t lie down so to put points on them like we did and forge a victory was brilliant,” he said.

“We need to do the same now over at Huddersfield.”

Their inconsistent hosts, of course, led Super League in April but are now marooned in seventh after a startling derailing.

However, awash with international stars, they still have enough quality to upset fifth-place Leeds who also need Bradford Bulls to do them a favour in Perpignan to nick fourth from Catalan.

Meanwhile, Rhinos’ Jimmy Keinhorst has perhaps enjoyed an even more noticeable rise than team-mate Ward.

The strapping centre – a part-timer plucked from university rugby league – appeared at Wembley in only his fourth senior appearance and has now, understandably, been rightly rewarded with a three-year contract.

Keinhorst is about to start his final year of a Sports Science degree at Leeds Metropolitan University so will be combining that with his football heading into 2013.

He admitted: “Studying at Leeds Met’ has been great for me.

“I definitely would not have got the chances I’ve had in rugby league without the close ties between the university and Rhinos.

“Paul Fletcher, our Leeds Met coach, recommended me to them and they signed me from there so it’s all happened very quickly.

“I’m really happy to have got this deal. I’m going into my final year now and I know it is going to be tough but it is something the Rhinos are fully supportive of.”

Rhinos coach Brian McDermott admitted: “Jimmy has impressed everyone at the club this season.

“For a 22-year-old to have played at Wembley in his fourth senior appearance is incredible and something that will stand him in good stead for years to come.

“Jimmy is learning all the time and, no doubt, there will be times when things are not progressing at the current rate.

“But we’ve a track record of supporting our young people through those tougher times.”

One of those – Liam Hood – could get a rare appearance tomorrow as fellow hooker Shaun Lunt is unavailable due to the terms of his loan deal from Huddersfield.

dave.craven@ypn.co.uk

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