LUKE GALE finally gets to don a Leeds Rhinos jersey on Boxing Day – exactly 11 years since doing so for the first and only time.
Back in 2008, as a starry-eyed, untried 20-year-old academy product, the promising scrum-half lined up for his hometown club in the festive friendly against Wakefield Trinity at Headingley.
On Thursday, he will do so again versus the same opponents, at the same ground but this time as an England international, World Cup finalist, Man of Steel winner and with almost 300 games under his belt.
In an ideal world, Gale would not have had to wait so long to pull on the blue and amber once more but there are no complaints about the elongated wait; just memories and friendships forged through a career that still promises so much.
The Yorkshireman rejoined Leeds after they paid a tidy fee to prise him from neighbours Castleford Tigers during the off-season.
Many people thought Gale had originally left Rhinos, joining Championship One part-timers Doncaster in 2009, without having ever played a game with their senior side.
Look, it was gutting at the time as I’d been a Leeds fan all those years. But I just saw it as another way I could achieve really and my goal was always to be a Super League player.Luke Gale
However, when the club recently posted a photo of him in action in that 2008 friendly, it prompted quite a response.
“I got hammered by the lads for that picture,” Gale told The Yorkshire Post.
“I’d be lying if I said I could even remember much about it.
“I’d been playing Under-18s and Under-21s for Rhinos and we were quite successful back then.
“We’d won an 18s comp and a 21s comp and been beaten in a 21s comp so we were always competing. I got a chance on that Boxing Day and I think I only played about 20 minutes but it was just great to be out there with the first-team.”
For all his talent, did Gale always expect to need to move on to further his career given the calibre of the club’s half-backs?
“Of course, I did; Leeds were on the crest of a wave at that time,” he said, Rhinos going on to complete a third successive title-winning campaign in 2009.
“They had a great side with Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow who were only a few years older than me and just starting their careers really but already recognised first-team players.
“With Kev (Sinfield) in there, too, you kind of knew your journey would have to be elsewhere. But that didn’t really bother me, if I’m honest.
“Look, it was gutting at the time as I’d been a Leeds fan all those years. But I just saw it as another way I could achieve really and my goal was always to be a Super League player.”
Undeterred, Gale achieved that and plenty more.
“I’d done eight weeks on loan at Doncaster towards the back end of the previous season (2008),” he explained.
“There was me and Luke Burgess who went there. I came back but we did a dual-reg so I did a pre-season with Leeds and then went to Doncaster.
“I did a year at Doncaster and that went great. Brian McDermott at London – or Harlequins as it was then – then came in and that’s how I got into Super League.”
Three years in the capital established Gale as a No7 of some promise, his talent honed further during the same amount of time at Bradford Bulls.
However, it was in Castleford colours where he truly took his game to another level, making his England debut before helping Tigers surge to a first-ever League Leaders’ Shield and Grand Final in 2017 when he also claimed Man of Steel and started a World Cup final against Australia.
Granted, Gale has been dogged by injuries since, missing four months of action last year due to a fractured kneecap and this entire last season following a torn Achilles tendon.
No wonder he is excited for more than one reason about the Festive Challenge.
Gale, 31, explained; “Obviously, it’s a few years down the line since that last Leeds game and this will be the first time I’ve played at all in 14 months.
“My last game was Wigan away in the semi-final in 2018. I’ve not played a match since then.
“It will be exciting but there’ll be nerves as well and all those sorts of emotions that I’m looking forward to. But also it’s my first game for Leeds, too, so it will be great.
“I can’t wait. When Rich (Agar) gave me the nod I was delighted.”
Often, clubs save their new signings until nearer the start of the season in February but Gale rightly says he’s “waited long enough” and there will certainly be no holding him back.
After two years in the doldrums, too, Leeds hope their returning son will fire them back into contention for a ninth Grand Final success. Having seen Great Britain struggle this autumn, reclaiming that England jersey for the 2020 home Ashes series against Australia must be high on his agenda.
“I’d be lying if I said I’d looked that far forward,” insisted Gale.
“The competitive nature of me means I still want to be the best seven in the comp. That won’t change. But I try to put things in a bit of perspective now. I haven’t played a game of rugby for more than a year. That will be great and once the form comes and if, towards the back end of 2020, people are saying ‘he should be in the England team’ then I hope that’s true. But I’ll take things a lot slower and just focus on getting better week to week.
“I’m sure the timing might take a few weeks to get going but I’ve got a few more friendlies before the real season starts. You can get all the rustiness out.
“But I can’t wait to get back and add value to the team and just get back playing and being a professional rugby player.
“It’s a bit of a blank canvas, here, I feel; there’s loads of youth, we’re a new group and on a bit of a journey. Let’s hope we can have a real positive year.”