HE may not be the most famous player in the champions’ squad, but St Helens must have feared the worst when Ash Handley’s name appeared on Leeds Rhinos’ teamsheet for one of the first big showdowns of this season in Betfred Super League.
Before Friday night, Handley had scored 25 tries in 56 first team games for Leeds, which is an impressive record in its own right, but eight of those touchdowns had come in his five appearances against Saints.
The 22-year-old duly delivered, crossing twice in a five-minute spell in the final quarter as Rhinos halted the Super League leaders’ unbeaten start to the season with an unexpected 28-20 success.
“It’s an all right record, but it was more about the win,” Handley said of his hot streak against Saints.
“We went really well as a team, there were a lot of young boys in there and we did really well.”
It was Leeds’s fourth successive victory against St Helens and they are the only team coach Justin Holbrook has yet to get the better of since joining the Merseyside outfit last May.
Leeds went into the round six fixture without eight first-team squad members due to injury and seven of those would have expected to be in the matchday squad if fit.
Handley is one of the fringe players given an opportunity because of Leeds’s early-season fitness crisis. Though a specialist winger, the loss of Liam Sutcliffe and Jimmy Keinhorst to injury has seen him play three successive games at centre.
Saints looked ready to take the upper hand through most of the first half, leading 12-6 at one stage, but Richie Myler’s first try for Leeds gave them a lifeline and squared the scores just before the interval.
The home team went two points in front soon after half-time, but Handley’s brace swung the balance of power and though Saints hit back with a spectacular long-range try inside the final 10 minutes, hooker Matt Parcell barged over soon afterwards to secure the victory for Leeds.
Despite the win, Rhinos coach Brian McDermott described his side’s performance as “not crash hot” and Handley agreed they weren’t at their best, but he feels the resilience and determination shown in defence will stand them in good stead this year.
“I think Saints were playing really well,” Handley said of the first half, which ended 12-12.
“We just managed to stick in there and got a try at the back end of the half to keep us in it.
“We were quite fortunate, probably, but as a team we stuck in there and got the result in the end.”
A year ago concerns were raised over Leeds’s lack of strength in depth after an injury-hit side were embarrassed 66-10 at Castleford Tigers.
Ten of the side on duty that night played against Saints and Handley feels Leeds’s youngsters and fringe players are now getting to grips with the demands of Super League.
“Obviously we are confident in ourselves and we wanted to go there and do a job and show we mean business this year,” he said.
“I know we had a few missing, but we were confident whoever’s in the team could do a job and that’s what we ended up doing.
“We do feel like a very tight-knit group this year and no matter who’s in, you are expected to do a job, whether that be a young lad or someone who’s experienced and been in the team a long time.
“If you don’t you are going to get your backside kicked. That’s what it was [on Friday].”
Three of Leeds’s substitutes against St Helens are still qualified to play in the under-19s and Handley reckons they will benefit massively from the experience of playing in an intense game against top-quality opponents.
“Cam Smith came off the bench and did a tremendous job for us,” he said of Leeds’s England academy captain.
“It just shows we are all pushing and we are pushing the experienced lads for a shirt.
“The average age on the bench on Friday was 19 and we’ve shown we can do it against the best teams.
“Saints hadn’t lost before that and we’ve shown what we can do.”
Handley’s try scoring record would make him a regular in many Super League sides, but he has had to play second fiddle to Ryan Hall and Tom Briscoe since his debut in 2014.
“Jimmy and Sutty are injured and I’m probably next in line for centre,” he said. “I feel I am quite versatile in the backs, I can probably play wing, centre and full-back, but I’m just happy to fill in wherever I can and hopefully I’ll put in some good performances and give Mac a headache for when they come back.”
Rhinos’ win left them two points behind Saints with a game in hand and set up a blockbuster Grand Final rematch against Castleford at Elland Road on Friday.
“It’s another big game,” Handley said. “They just keep coming now, week by week.
“It’s already round seven this week and it feels like pre-season’s only just finished. We’re looking forward to it, we’ve got to build and go again.”