Kyle Eastmond primed to excite after cross-code switch to Leeds Rhinos

IT was back in 2009 that Kyle Eastmond played for England in a Four Nations final, forming an exciting half-back partnership with another precociously talented 20-year-old by the name of Sam Tomkins.

In the second half, Tony Smith’s side actually led against Australia at Elland Road after a third 20-year-old - Sam Burgess playing his last game here before heading to South Sydney - rattled through for his thrilling second try.

For a few minutes, England with such a fine amalgam of gifted youth and cussed experience - Jamie Peacock, James Graham, Adrian Morley and Gareth Ellis all steeled the pack - had fans truly believing the interminable long wait for success was about to end.

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Predictably, though, the Kangaroos, led by the incomparable Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston, stirred into action to deny them silverware yet again. England are still waiting.

Leeds Rhinos' new signing Kyle Eastmond. Picture: Phil Daly/Leeds Rhinos/ Rhinos' new signing Kyle Eastmond. Picture: Phil Daly/Leeds Rhinos/
Leeds Rhinos' new signing Kyle Eastmond. Picture: Phil Daly/Leeds Rhinos/

Still, no one watching the dynamic St Helens tyro Eastmond that night would have ever predicted he would not play for England again. Well, at least not for England’s rugby league side.

Yet Eastmond switched codes two years later and headed to Bath where - having seen his electric pace used at centre - he did manage to represent his country once more, debuting for the Red Rose in 2013.

After playing for Bath, Wasps and, most latterly, Leicester Tigers, the Oldham-born playmaker yesterday made a shock return to league when he was unveiled by Leeds Rhinos on a two-year contract.

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It is too easy to say he has unfinished business in rugby league but there is an excitement from many involved in the sport - and not least at Emerald Headingley - about what Eastmond could potentially achieve upon his return.

Granted, he has been a free agent since leaving Leicester last July, one of five players, including Manu Tuilagi, to depart after a dispute following the squad being offered amended deals in the wake of the pandemic.

Eastmond had the chance to move to rivals Premiership clubs or to France.

However, he has bided his time and now, after Leeds were left with a number of injury concerns in the playmaking department with the new season barely three weeks away, has taken an opportunity to return to his first sport.

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Asked what he has missed most about rugby league, Eastmond said: “The honesty and integrity you get with rugby league players and staff and clubs.

“That is massively important to me and it’s something that helps me on the field, once I understand I have got that infrastructure around me.

“That is probably the biggest thing I am looking forward to being around again, with people with a lot of integrity who I can trust. Regardless of what’s on the table elsewhere, this move is about coming to the right place, with the right people.

“Luckily enough I got this opportunity - and I am taking it.”

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Getting his hands on the ball more is something else he is relishing after being told he will play in the halves at Headingley.

“It is my natural game, to be on the ball and be involved in the game. I like to have runners around me, allowing me to go to the line and make decisions - whether that be run, pass or kick. I am looking forward to it; it is exciting.”

Eastmond knows the transition will not be easy and, of course, at the age of 31, there will be question marks about whether he will still have that acceleration and cutting edge that league fans will remember him for.

But he added: “I’d like to think I can still do those same sorts of things.

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“That’s something that’s just in me to be able to do that and I work quite hard on it.

“I’ll have to continue to do that at this stage of my career. But I’m confident I can.”

Importantly, he knows Leeds’s coaches well, head coach Richard Agar having coached him in England Academy and assistant Sean Long being such an influence as a team-mate when he emerged and blossomed at St Helens.

Even Rhinos director of rugby Kevin Sinfield was an England colleague, the decorated stand-off ironically shifted to hooker to help facilitate the inclusion of Eastmond and Tomkins in that tournament in 2009.

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Many argue Eastmond should have won more than his six caps in union. With further irony, he possibly missed out on some after Burgess followed him to Bath and beat him to selection at the 2015 World Cup, but it does not fester with him.

He said: “I went to achieve what I wanted to achieve; I played for my country in some big games against some of the best teams in the world and played in some great Premiership teams, too.

“I’m really proud of doing that having needed to learn the game from scratch. But now I need a new challenge. And this is it.”

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