Sam Walters: Leeds Rhinos star puts Christmas and birthday on hold ahead of Boxing Day Festive Challenge showdown with Wakefield Trinity

Leeds Rhinos' players are used to putting Christmas celebrations on hold, but Boxing Day rugby means a double sacrifice for forward Sam Walters.

The second-rower has been named in an initial squad to face Wakefield Trinity in Sunday’s Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge, the day after his 21st birthday.

Along with Levi Edwards - who is exactly three years younger, but not involved this weekend - Walters is one of two Rhinos players born on Christmas Day.

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The Liverpool-born forward made eight appearances this year, doubling his tally from 2020 and is anxious to claim a regular spot next season, so insists he has no qualms about putting birthday and Christmas celebrations on hold until following the match.

Sam Walters training at Headingley. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

“My family will be at the game so I am sure we’ll celebrate my birthday the day after,” he said.

“I am excited for it, it [Sunday’s game] allows me to see where I’m at with regards to pre-season.

“It has been a tough pre-season and it’s the first taste of what this next year’s going to entail for me.

“The game is what I’ve got my mind on now and Christmas and my birthday can come after that.”

Sam Walters in possession for Rhinos against St Helens in 2020. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

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At 21 Walters will be starting to move out of the ‘young prospect’ bracket and reckons 2022 is set to be “the biggest year” of his career so far.

That means making a good impression in this weekend’s all-ticket derby is crucial as he aims to show coach Richard Agar he is worth a regular place in the matchday 17.

The former England academy man, who joined Rhinos from Widnes Vikings in 2018, noted: “We don’t have that much squad depth at the moment so hopefully I and a few of the young boys can start becoming regulars, either on the bench or in the starting roles.

“I have got a few more things to my craft now, I can play in a number of positions, whether I am needed in the middle of just as a back-rower.”

Grand Final-winning second-rower James Bentley is set to make his first appearance for Rhinos on Boxing Day following his move from St Helens.

Rhyse Martin - who has a slight injury and won’t be risked - and Alex Mellor are also ahead of Walters in squad number order and there is added competition from the likes of Bodene Thompson, James Donaldson and teenager Morgan Gannon.

“They are good people to have ahead of me at the moment,” Walters said.

“I am learning off them bit by bit, but I am still hungry to catch them and overtake them.

“The competition’s something that’s good for me, with my development.”

Reflecting on 2021, Walters admitted it was “a bit of an up and down season for myself”.

He said: “I got quite a lot of games due to people being injured, but we sometimes didn't have people playing in the right positions, so it was hard for me to find combinations.

“This year that’s something I am looking forward to developing and getting those combinations with certain half-backs or people I am next to in the team.”