Rhinos rookie Ward is eager to maintain steep learning curve

ASK Leeds Rhinos’ Stevie Ward about his range of emotions during last season’s Grand Final win over Warrington Wolves and you certainly get an entertaining recital.

The gifted teenager played his part in the memorable victory but he had other things to contend with too, not least the shattering shoulder injury which would end his Old Trafford experience early and sideline him for five months.

“It was a really weird night,” Ward told the Yorkshire Post, ahead of tomorrow evening’s first meeting since of the two Super League giants.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“The adrenaline went through the roof when I was playing and then I got that injury.

“I just tried to get back into the defensive line but all the time knowing if someone ran at that shoulder I wouldn’t be able to do much. It was annoying.

“I was back in the changing rooms trying to get it sorted – you’re concerned about what’s happening on the pitch – but then the physio came in to say Hally had scored.

“That really put my mind at rest.We’d won it and it really was a unique moment. You can’t take anything away from that.”

It capped a remarkable year for the tyro who had only made his first-team debut in March, still aged just 18, yet went on to feature in a Challenge Cup final – “there’s mixed memories of games with Warrington” – total 21 games and win a Super League title after turning down the chance to tour Australia with England Academy to secure his spot at Headingley.

He played in a variety of positions, too, including stand-off at Wembley, centre, loose forward but, primarily, second-row from the bench and all this came while he was still at school successfully passing his A-levels.

After such a breathtaking start to his fledgling career, though, there were inevitable concerns – from those who do not know him, at least – that there could be a bout of ‘second-season syndrome’ around the corner.

There are no signs whatsoever of that materialising. He seems reassuringly mature beyond his years both in the manner he asserts himself on and off the pitch.

After having an operation to fix a labrum tear in that wrecked shoulder, he did not make his return until round three but made an instant impact, scoring a try against Salford and securing a place in the starting line-up for the following week’s World Club Challenge with Melbourne Storm.

It was a sign of the faith head coach Brian McDermott has in the talented youngster, further enhanced by the fact he has played in every game since.

“I am pleased,” said Ward, with reference to the travails of trying to emulate that debut campaign.

“It is hard. You have your plateaus and dips in form and you experience that in different times and different games.

“But it’s always at the top of my mind to put out a performance that Mac needs and what the team needs.

“If I stay switched on to do that – and you still need to be at the top of your game – hopefully it won’t be far off.”

It helps having such experienced and professional team-mates as England captain Kevin Sinfield – there has been inevitable comparisons – Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Jamie Peacock surrounding him in that illustrious pack.

Yet it must all seem a little surreal for the kid who grew up just down the road from the famous club in Morley and is currently catching up with school pals back from their first taste of university.

“How different things are now compared to last year,” he smiled.

“I’ve three real close mates from school who I’ve kept in touch with and especially now it’s Easter and they’re all back home from uni.

“It’s good to see them and stay in touch but we’ve got very different day jobs at the minute.

“I’d like to do a degree. I’m looking to do something at Leeds Met and am just waiting for another player to sign up with me. It’s only a matter of time and whether the course fits the purposes of what I want to do.

“I’m sure I’ll be getting stuck into it soon, probably something like broadcast media. Hopefully I’ll be after Barrie McDermott’s job eventually!”

Aside from his pals uprooting, Ward has also seen his twin sister Rachel leave the family home. Given the closer than average link between twin siblings, he admits it has been a significant change for him to contend with.

“Everything seems to be better when she is at home,” said Ward.

“She’s a good girl and I do miss her. We’ve been doing everything together as we’ve grown up so this is the first time really we’ve been apart.

“But as long as she’s enjoying it and as long as she doesn’t get a job in Newcastle – that’s where she’s studying medicine – it’s fine.

“She’s a real bright spark. We get on really well and she pushed me on to get some work done. I can’t thank her enough for what she did when we were at school.”

After a tough win in Perpignan on Monday, Leeds are battle-hardened for the visit of the Challenge Cup winners to Headingley and there should be a fascinating battle between Ward – tipped to break into England’s World Cup squad – and Benny Westwood.

“He’s been one of the top range second-rows for a while now,” admitted the Leeds player.

“You need to play against these players to better yourself and challenge yourself. Ben Westwood is one of those.

“I’ve not got an eye on it (World Cup) but hopefully if I’m playing well for Leeds everything comes hand in hand; international recognition comes with performance.

“I’ll put all my work into Rhinos and if that happens then brilliant,” he said.

“But first it’s all about Warrington. We know how good a team they are.”