The Leeds winger answered an SOS from the Great Britain management after injuries hit the Lions squad, leaving head coach Wayne Bennett without a specialist centre and with only one recognised winger for the last two matches.
After a 24-hour flight, Handley linked up with the rest of the players in Brisbane in time for their onward journey to Port Moresby for the last Test against Papua New Guinea but was then left out of Bennett’s 21-man squad as the coach opted to stick with stand-off Blake Austin as a makeshift winger.
“Obviously I was happy with the call-up and excited to go over there and join the boys,” said 23-year-old Handley, speaking about the experience for the first time as he took a break in the Rhinos’ pre-season training at Headingley.
“I fully expected to be playing but obviously it wasn’t meant to be. He said he fancied going with Blake because he’d had a half-decent start the week before.
“Obviously I wanted to be playing and make an impact but I didn’t let it worry me too much. It was something not in my control. I had to forget about it and support the boys.”
The announcement sparked a social media furore back home, with Bennett facing huge criticism, but Handley, who had already undertaken a 22,000-mile round trip for the World Nines in Sydney only a month earlier, adopted a diplomatic stance.
“I was getting tagged in a few lines on Twitter but it’s not something I focused on,” he said. “As I say, there was nothing I could do about it.
“I was in the same situation as a few other guys – Jake Trueman was there for all the tour and didn’t get a game.
“But it’s made me a bit more motivated. I’ve got my name in the mix now. I know it was only a brief role but I showed my commitment to the boys and I was part of the experience. I did everything asked of me.”
Handley, who with 22 tries finished only one behind Super League’s leading try-scorer Tom Makinson in 2019, was delighted to win an England call-up for the World Nines and is hoping to build on the experience ahead of the visit of the Kangaroos next October.
Whether Bennett will still be in charge of the national team by then is still unknown as the Rugby Football League ponder the future of the out-of-contract Australian in the wake of the 4-0 tour whitewash.
Handley continued: “He’s a good coach who’s great at getting the best out of people. The GB tour wasn’t as successful as everybody would have wanted but I don’t think it will all be based on that.
“If you look at his record with England and in the NRL, he’s done really well and there’s no reason why he couldn’t continue to do well.”