PRE-SEASON is a time of the year players generally dread, but Leeds Rhinos star Stevie Ward is relishing the prospect of the next two months.
Ward was among an 18-strong group present at the first day of training earlier this week.
More senior players will report in next Monday and the entire squad will be back at the club before Christmas.
That is in contrast to recent campaigns when some overseas players and those on international duty did not begin pre-season until the new year.
With a new coach, Dave Furner, in place and a series of changes to the squad and backroom staff, Rhinos’ management are keen to put in as much hard work as possible before their Betfred Super League opener at Warrington Wolves on Saturday, February 2.
Construction of Emerald Headingley’s North Stand has led to Rhinos beginning their campaign with four away games and they are also set to visit champions Wigan Warriors, Salford Red Devils and 2018 league leaders St Helens in the first month.
You need to give your body a rest, you’ve got to allow yourself to get a little bit out of shape and a bit out of what you are used to be keen to work hard and get it back.Peter Smith
A series of injuries restricted Ward to just 17 appearances this year, but – with a full pre-season under his belt – he is determined to hit the ground running.
“I am feeling really good and really eager to get fully involved and work my way up to a really good state physically,” said the 24-year-old, two-time Grand Final winner.
“I have only had that opportunity once, in 2015. Hopefully I can bring that kind of durable side of things to this year.”
Ward missed the start of the 2018 season as he recovered from a dislocated shoulder.
He suffered a torn calf muscle two games into his comeback, in the World Club Challenge defeat at Melbourne Storm, and ended the year on the sidelines with an ankle syndesmosis (ligament) injury sustained against Hull KR in the Qualifiers, but has now fully recovered from those setbacks.
Chris Black, who had a spell on Rhinos’ staff before moving on to work with Yorkshire Carnegie, the Rugby Football League and England, has returned to the Headingley club as its head conditioner.
After a series of late collapses last term, an emphasis is likely to be placed on fitness over the coming weeks and that is music to Ward’s ears.
“I am not feeling fit, but I am feeling well, feeling healthy,” he added. “I am sure I will feel fit in the next month or two with all the hard work we’ll be doing.
“You need to give your body a rest, you’ve got to allow yourself to get a little bit out of shape and a bit out of what you are used to be keen to work hard and get it back.”
Next year is a fresh start for Rhinos and Ward is hopeful the bad luck which plagued him last term is a thing of the past.
“I am really keen,” he stressed. “I am glad there’s a fresh outlook and a fresh kind of consensus to what we’re going to do as a team this year. Gradually all the boys will come back throughout this pre-season and hopefully we’ll pull together and do some exciting stuff.”
Furner arrived in the country last week, seven days ahead of beginning pre-season.
The Australian played for Rhinos in 2003-4 and was a member of their first Grand Final winning side 14 years ago.
He has since coached Canberra Raiders in the NRL and had roles as an assistant with North Queensland Cowboys and South Sydney Rabbitohs, and national sides Australia and Tonga.
Souths were top scorers in their competition last season, when they finished third and Ward is excited about working with Furner.
He said: “He played the same position as me and he’s been here before so he knows what the Rhinos are all about.
“He brings that added edge from what he has learned over in Australia so he will be good for us. There’s new staff changes, Blacky has come back and he’s a good mate of mine so it’s exciting.”