JAMES DONALDSON has earned himself a contract with former World Club champions Leeds Rhinos – just weeks after thinking he might not even get a club this year and more than a decade after originally turning them down.
The ex-Bradford Bulls back-row has secured a one-year deal at Emerald Headingley after being on trial there since early December.
Previously, Donaldson had been training in a gym, often on his own, after being surprisingly released by Hull KR at the end of last season.
With so many other players already snapped up, the 27-year-old did wonder if his Super League career could be over and he spoke about the pressure caused by all the uncertainty over his future.
However, the Cumbrian’s persistence and dedication has now paid off after he impressed Rhinos director of rugby Kevin Sinfield and head coach Dave Furner sufficiently to see them make him part of their squad for 2019.
“I was always confident that if I got an opportunity I could prove my worth,” said Donaldson, who featured in Leeds’ Boxing Day friendly win over Wakefield Trinity and now aims to make their Super League opener at Warrington Wolves on February 2.
“It was just getting that opportunity to get my foot in the door.
“I was over the moon when I heard I’d got the deal.
“I spoke to Kev and had good feedback from him all the way through (the trial period). Obviously they wanted to see me play Boxing Day.
“I sat down with Kev after that game and he said then that he wanted me and let’s get it sorted.
“The last few weeks we’ve managed to do that. I’ve settled down a lot more in training now I know I don’t have to prove that point all the time and try too hard.
“To be able to come to a club like this, and with the position they’re in at the minute, I can’t wait for it.”
As one of the most sought-after players of his age range, a teenage Donaldson turned down both Leeds and Wigan Warriors to join Bradford in 2008.
It is almost 11 years to the day that Bulls announced they had signed the England Schoolboys international but now he has finally arrived at Headingley.
Donaldson admitted he never envisaged eventually playing for their fierce rivals.
“I was flicking through my phone the other day and saw a few pictures flash up of me playing against Leeds for Bradford,” he said.
“I could never imagine it then happening like this now. But sometimes you get the nicest of surprises and this has definitely been one.
“Leeds were one of the teams who did try to sign me when I joined Bradford.
“It sounds silly but I bumped into (Rhinos scout) Bob Pickles down the road the other day, the guy who tried to get me to Leeds.
“And I said it’s nice to see you back here! I’m really looking forward to my future here now, building on it and hopefully earning a new (longer) contract sooner rather than later.”
It is all in stark contrast to his plight not long ago.
Donaldson, who spent four years at Rovers after leaving Bradford, conceded: “It’s been a crazy six months.
“I can’t tell you how hard it’s been mentally not just for me but for my family as well who have seen me go through this tough time.
“There was some dark days not knowing what the future holds but I always remained confident in myself that I could still do a job.
“I’m looking forward to getting stuck in and really putting some performances in for Leeds and working my way into that team.”
Donaldson is thriving under Furner, the former Australia back-row who is preparing for his first season in charge at Headingley.
“I’ve loved working with Dave so far, learning new things to add to my game and that’s what one of the biggest plusses to go into a team like this is,” he said.
“I’m learning new things all the time, taking them on board and hopefully I can keep improving my game.
“I feel in great shape at the moment; I’ve not felt this good for a long time so it’s all positives heading into the new season.”
Meanwhile, Chris Clarkson – Donaldson’s former Rovers team-mate who was also released by KR at the end of the season – has earned a trial with Super League rivals Castleford Tigers.
Clarkson, 28, won two Grand Finals during his days with hometown Leeds but has also been seeking a club ever since his three-year association came to an end at Craven Park.
He has the duration of pre-season to prove he is worthy of a deal at Wheldon Road while another former Rovers forward Jordan Walne has joined Barrow Raiders.