HE needs two hands to display his Grand Final winner’s gold rings, but there was a time Carl Ablett feared he might never make the grade with Leeds Rhinos.
Ablett was Leeds’s only ever-present last year, playing in all 36 games during the club’s historic treble-winning campaign. That was a far cry from his difficult early days at Headingley, when he was in danger of becoming Rhinos’ forgotten man.
The 100th player to represent the club in the Super League era, Ablett made his debut in July, 2004, but then had to wait until March, 2006 for his second appearance.
On the eve of his testimonial game, against visitors Bradford Bulls, Ablett revealed only a fierce desire to make it with the club he supported as a boy prevented him from moving elsewhere in search of first-team rugby.
Ablett, aged 19, came into a Leeds team heading towards top spot in the table and a first championship in 32 years.
During the 2004 campaign the men from Headingley failed to win only six of their 33 matches in all competitions and one of those was the former Middleton junior’s debut.
“I played against London at Brentford, when Liam Botham [who was on loan from Leeds] kicked a conversion for them to draw the game,” Ablett, now 30, recalled. “I wasn’t training full-time and after it I didn’t play for 20 months. At that time I was thinking I probably wasn’t going to play for Leeds again.”
London offered Ablett game time during a loan spell towards the end of 2005. He made five appearances and impressed Broncos’ coaching staff so much they were keen for him to stay on a longer deal.
“I went to London and that was really good for me, it opened my eyes to what it takes to be a Super League player,” Ablett added.
“I remember playing against JP (Jamie Peacock) in the play-offs at Odsal and that was a real eye-opener. I think London wanted to keep me and Gary (Hetherington, Rhinos’ chief executive) was a bit on the edge.
“I don’t think he would have stood in my way if I wanted to go, but I thought to myself this is the team I supported as a boy and you have to give it everything before you turn your back on this club. I got my head down in pre-season and in the middle of 2006 I played a few games and just tried to do my bit for the team, which was just working hard at that time. We were a decent team and my job was to do the ugly stuff and try and stay in the team that way.”
Ablett came back from a serious knee injury to play 15 games in 2007, including the title decider, and has been a regular in the side ever since, scoring 70 tries in 259 appearances.
He has featured in Rhinos’ last six Grand Final triumphs – scoring a try at Old Trafford in 2011 and 2012 – and was in the 2014 and 2015 Challenge Cup final-winning teams.
“I have been really fortunate to play in such a great team,” he insisted. “It is an unbelievable record and it probably hasn’t sunk in yet what we have achieved. It just goes over your head and I am not sure when it will sink in, but hopefully we have got a few more years and we can add to it.
“I am feeling really good at the moment and I am excited about this coming year. We have got a good team and I can’t wait for the season to start.”
As well as celebrating Ablett’s contribution to the cause, tomorrow’s game is a crucial stage in Rhinos’ preparations for their opening Super League fixture at home to Warrington Wolves on Thursday, February 4.
“It is a nice occasion for me and all the lads are ready for a game,” Ablett said. “We need to work on some combinations and put what we’ve been working on in training into a game situation.”
Leeds coach Brian McDermott has named his strongest available side. Brett Ferres, a recent signing from Huddersfield, will make his first appearance at Headingley as a Rhinos player.
He will be on a bench that also includes Liam Sutcliffe, the 21-year-old stand-off who has not played since suffering a knee injury last June.
Kurt Haggerty, Ben Kavanagh, Oscar Thomas, Johnny Walker and Kris Welham are all in line to make their first appearance for Bradford, alongside trialist Rhys Jacks.