AFTER climbing to the top of Super League’s try scoring chart, in a season when his team have been struggling at the foot of the table, Leeds Rhinos wing Ash Handley has been rewarded with a place in the Great Britain performance squad.
Handley’s game-breaking try in Rhinos’ 36-10 win at London Broncos two days ago was his 22nd of the season in the league, one more than Salford Red Devils’ Niall Evalds.
Handley, 23, inherited Leeds’s No 5 jersey from Ryan Hall in pre-season and has been one of their few success stories during another dismal campaign.
Already a member of the second-string Knights performance group, he is among five players from outside the England elite squad in with a chance of featuring on the Lions’ tour to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in October and November.
The others are St Helens’ Australian-born full-back Lachlan Coote, who has previously represented Scotland and club-mate and Morgan Knowles, already a Welsh international, plus Warrington Wolves forward Joe Philbin, who played for Ireland in the 2017 World Cup and Salford Red Devils’ Josh Jones.
The 29-man squad is otherwise similar to the England group, but Wakefield Trinity winger Tom Johnstone and Castleford Tigers’ half-back Luke Gale have been ruled out by injury, as has St Helens’ Matty Lees.
Warrington’s Ben Currie was not considered for selection to allow him to have a full off-season after recent injury problems.
The Great Britain performance squad has been selected by a seven-man panel led by head coach – and England boss – Wayne Bennett.
The other selectors include team manager and former Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock, assistant-coaches Ian Watson and Danny Ward and ex-GB tourists Paul Anderson, Paul Sculthorpe and Paul Wellens.
Hull have the biggest contingent of the five Yorkshire clubs represented, with three players – Jake Connor, Jamie Shaul and Scott Taylor – in the GB squad, Leeds and Castleford Tigers have two each and Huddersfield Giants one. Rhinos’ Stevie Ward is included, despite not having played since February due to a knee injury, as are Castleford’s Liam Watts and Jake Trueman, Huddersfield’s Jermaine McGillvary and Reece Lyne of Wakefield Trinity.
The Great Britain squad will meet for the first time in Leeds next week to begin the preparations for the forthcoming tour.
Bennett said: “As we’ve said since the return of the Great Britain team was announced at the start of the year, we have considered everyone who is eligible and puts themselves forward.
“As well as this performance squad of players based in England and France, we’ve got another group of players based in the NRL to consider – and there’s still time for others who are eligible to impress and force their way in.”
The final 24-man squad will be announced within 48 hours of the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford on October 12.
Great Britain’s first appearance on the international stage since 2007 will be a Test against Tonga in Hamilton, New Zealand on Saturday October 26.
That is followed by Tests against New Zealand on each of the next two Saturdays, at Auckland’s Eden Park on November 2, and Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch on November 9,.
Great Britain conclude the tour against Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby on November 16.
The GB elite performance squad is: Jake Trueman (Castleford Tigers, community club West Bowling), Liam Watts (Castleford, Featherstone Lions), Sam Tomkins (Catalans Dragons, Wigan St Patricks), Jermaine McGillvary (Huddersfield Giants, Deighton Juniors), Jake Connor (Hull FC, Siddal), Jamie Shaul (Hull, Skirlaugh), Scott Taylor (Hull, Skirlaugh), Ash Handley (Leeds Rhinos, Oulton Raiders), Stevie Ward (Leeds, Hunslet Warriors), Jonny Lomax (St Helens, Orrell St James), Tommy Makinson (St Helens, Wigan St Judes), Mark Percival (St Helens, Halton Farnworth Hornets), James Roby (St Helens, Blackbrook), Luke Thompson (St Helens, Bold Miners), Alex Walmsley (St Helens, Dewsbury Celtic), Morgan Knowles (St Helens - Wales), Lachlan Coote (St Helens - Scotland), Josh Jones (Salford Red Devils, Blackbrook Royals), Reece Lyne (Wakefield Trinity, Ideal Isberg), Blake Austin (Warrington Wolves, Doonside Roos), Josh Charnley (Warrington, Wigan St Pats), Daryl Clark (Warrington, Fryston Warriors), Chris Hill (Warrington, New Springs Lions), Jack Hughes (Warrington, Golborne Parkside), Joe Philbin (Warrington, Culcheth Eagles), Stefan Ratchford (Warrington, Wigan St Pats), Oliver Gildart (Wigan Warriors, Wigan St Pats), Sean O’Loughlin (Wigan, Wigan St Patricks), George Williams (Wigan, Wigan St Pats).
Castleford coach Daryl Powell has confirmed the departure of centre Kieran Gill to Newcastle Thunder and addressed the rumours surrounding the future of England’s Luke Gale.
Gale is under contract with the Tigers for 2020 but continues to be linked with a move to Super League neighbours Leeds.
“People are going to throw different things around,” Powell said.
“Obviously, he’s not playing and Leeds are looking for a half-back. It’s the way it is, people like rumours.”