JUST seven days before completing all 80 minutes of Leeds Rhinos’ Grand Final win, a broken Stevie Ward contemplated quitting rugby league altogether as he lay in hospital in agony with his left shoulder hanging out of its socket.
Still aged just 23, the talented back-row, on the verge of England honours with a long career ahead of him, had already experienced countless major injuries and he wondered whether he had the fortitude to carry on anymore.
Ward had already missed Leeds’s 2015 Grand Final win over Wigan Warriors after rupturing his knee cruciate ligaments just two weeks previously.
He came off the bench in the 2012 Grand Final but soon headed back off again as he suffered a shoulder injury which required surgery in the aftermath of their win over Warrington Wolves and then, in 2013, a reconstruction.
Having dislocated the same left shoulder during Leeds’s semi-final win against Hull FC a week last Friday, it looked, then, certain he would be forced to sit out yet another showpiece.
To go from the complete opposite spectrums in rugby league. To be in this position right now is surreal. The top feels so much better from the bottom.Leeds Rhinos’ Stevie Ward
Clutching a beer after helping Rhinos to a 24-6 success over League Leaders Castleford Tigers on Saturday night, Ward recalled: “There was moments in the early hours of (last) Saturday morning I was giving in.
“I was giving in and moving on. I didn’t think I could go through another process, coming back from injury and missing a final.
“At 3am when I had to face sitting on that A&E bed for another seven hours and morphine wasn’t touching it, you’re facing up to the emotional pain of missing another final.
“All thoughts were going through my head. I thought can I go through another process of coming back from injury and doing this?
“I spoke to Mac (Leeds coach Brian McDermott), I spoke to Gary (Hetherington), I even mentioned it to them. I said I don’t know if I could do this again? So to be stood here now it is a bit of a shock. I’m just waiting for it to sink in so I can soak it all up.
“It’s nice. To go from the complete opposite spectrums in rugby league. To be in this position right now is surreal. The top feels so much better from the bottom.”
Ward revealed how his remarkable recovery ensued.
“To have my shoulder still out at 9am Saturday morning in that pain, I probably couldn’t think straight,” he said.
“The nurses were brilliant. All the hospital staff were brilliant.
“But there was one nurse who before I went to get popped in at 10am I said, tongue-in-cheek, ‘what do you reckon next week, Grand Final…?’ And she said ‘Yeah, you’ll be alright, get it popped in and you’ll be alright.’
“There was a decision I had to make on Sunday. Sunday night I had it in a sling. I got up and tried to move it around.
“I thought there’s a week in this to get back. I knew I had to make the decision then on the Sunday.
“I picked my belief up and made the decision that I’d play and then everything came in around that; that mindset helped me pick it up this week to help play in a Grand Final and put a performance in. I had to make that choice and make that decision and it was just resilience as I didn’t want to miss another final.”
Asked when he knew he would be definitely playing, Ward replied: “I knew from Monday. I knew myself. Obviously I had to prove my fitness and get in the team but I wasn’t missing it.”
Leeds had said at Monday’s Old Trafford Grand Final press conference that Ward was seeing a specialist at the same time in Manchester but everyone wrongly presumed he had no chance of playing that week.
He continued: “There was a lot of damage but the damage wasn’t on the muscle or the rotator cuff… the moving thing.
“It was all in the stability – the capsulator and labrum – so I had the scan. But for me, if I could move it and make a tackle, I was playing. I got good news from the specialist Monday. He knew the gravity of the situation and he knew I could have a crack.”
Leeds named Ward in their 19-man squad on Thursday with some still thinking it was just ‘mind-games’ deployed by McDermott to keep Tigers guessing.
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However, they announced on Friday, their Academy product had passed a fitness test and barely 24 hours later, giving a typically forceful display in both attack and defence, he had completed his stunning tale.
There was a point where he was left clutching the shoulder and he admitted: “Yeah, it didn’t like that position. It came up and I landed on it a bit funny.
“I was a bit wary of it the whole game. It’s sore now. I couldn’t really feel it at the end of the game but it’s starting to pick up now.
“But I’ve played all my life with sore shoulders. I remember playing for Churwell Chiefs aged 11 having played Bulldogs at school and dislocated my AC joint.
“Two weeks later I put pads on, bubble wrap over my left shoulder and ended up playing against Fev Lions so it’s just another episode is this Saturday night.”
Leeds captain Danny McGuire, after another Grand Final man-of-the-match display, suggested afterwards that Ward could replace him as Rhinos skipper.
“Danny McGuire’s special isn’t he?” he said. “He picks the night to come out and prove how good he is. Magic Mags.
“He’s outstanding and for him to say that about me is lovely but that’s all to come out in the wash. Who knows what will happen?”