HE made his senior debut with bleached pink hair at St Helens two years ago this week, but Stevie Ward has certainly shown himself to be a far more organic rugby player ever since.
The Leeds Rhinos youngster’s first appearance for his hometown club all got a little lost in the furore over their 46-6 hammering at Langtree Park in 2012.
Brian McDermott’s squad each coloured their barnets in aid of charity and, given the size of the defeat, some ill-informed critics argued their heads had never really been on the matter in hand.
As the West Yorkshire club return there tonight, it brings back plenty of memories for Ward who has experienced so much thereafter, from the highs of a Grand Final success and facing NRL champions Melbourne Storm to the lows of a Challenge Cup final defeat and ample injury torment.
“It has definitely been a real whirlwind since that day,” the talented second-row – still only aged 20 – told The Yorkshire Post.
“I remember the game was fast and we didn’t really come away with much yet, personally, it was great to get a debut, get out there and give the side something.
“Hopefully, we’ll be getting more from it on Friday and not that sort of towelling again.
“People from the outside looking in that time saw the red hair thing and might have thought we weren’t taking it seriously.
“But St Helens away is about as serious as it gets. We were raising money for Sport Relief and there are bigger things than rugby league – but we wanted the result.
“We know we’ll have to work hard on Friday to get it. Saints have started the season well.”
Indeed, their reformed hosts sit at the top of Super League with the only remaining 100 per cent record so far, though unbeaten Leeds are tucked in just behind having dropped points only once in their opening six games with a draw at Huddersfield.
For Ward, it has been an especially invigorating start to the new season. He spent most of last year sidelined due to a shoulder reconstruction, worryingly the second already in his burgeoning career, but returned in the win against Warrington and has played in all of the last five matches.
“It’s good to be back out there after eight months out,” admitted the tough-tackling forward.
“I’ve just got to keep on my toes now and make sure I stay in the side. The last couple of games have not been great for me, if I’m honest, and there’s players coming back now so I have to get out there and raise my physicality.”
Ward will relish that prospect against a Saints side who have been particularly robust this season and, indeed, it was no real surprise that McDermott rested his main Trojan Jamie Peacock last week in readiness for it.
Tonight’s top-of-the-table meeting may have seen its lustre diluted somewhat, though, given the Merseysiders have lost two of the forwards who have given them such ballast – Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and ex-Leeds and Wakefield prop Kyle Amor – to suspension with Jon Wilkin.
Furthermore, they are also missing through injury their influential scrum-half Luke Walsh, the Australian who has had such an instant and marked impact on their play since arriving from Penrith Panthers.
But Ward countered: “Saints have some real strength in depth and it’ll still be that red and white jersey we’re playing.
“Definitely they are physical up front this season and a lot of their great start is off the back of what their pack has done.
“We have to match them in the forwards but – like us – they’ve got some great young British backs too. Tom Makinson and Josh Jones are going well, while Mark Percival at centre is a good mate of mine as well.
“We came through the England Academy side together and I know just what he can do.
“It’s great to see him making an impact on Super League and he’s a big test for any defence.”
At the other end of the scale, Paul Wellens, St Helens’ ex-Great Britain full-back now utilised as an auxiliary back-row or makeshift half-back, is set to draw level with Leeds legend Keith Senior as Super League’s all-time appearance leader on 413.
Approaching only his 34th such fixture, Ward has some way to go to reach that sort of milestone, but – if he can avoid more major injuries – he clearly has all the talent to go on and establish himself as a leading performer.
Invited to one of Steve McNamara’s England gatherings last year, continued progress could possibly see him force his way into the Four Nations reckoning.
There was a worry a week ago when he was spotted clutching his shoulder again in the 54-6 destruction of London Broncos.
However, Ward said: “I just got a bit sore once when I hit the floor and the pitch was pretty hard.
“But I took confidence from the fact there wasn’t much pain.
“It’s been looked at, it’s fine and I just want to crack on.”
Leeds Rhinos’ ex-Great Britain prop Ryan Bailey has joined injury-hit Hunslet Hawks on dual-registration along with Chris Clarkson. Both should face London Skolars in Championship One on Sunday.