STEVIE Ward admits it feels “strange” now being Leeds Rhinos’ longest-serving player – but is relishing the chance to put all his knowledge to good use in 2020.
The back-row turned 26 only last month but is suddenly the player who has been wearing the famous blue and amber the longest.
Given fellow second-rows Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Carl Ablett retired at the end of the season – with 35 years of Leeds service between them – Ward is now out in front as the senior Rhino.
He debuted for his hometown club as a teenager in 2012 and said: “I’m more than happy to take on this responsibility and to play my part in that.
“It is sort of strange, though, that I now find myself as the club’s longest-serving Rhinos player.
“It’s obviously happened over the last few years where people have retired but it doesn’t seem like two minutes ago that I was making my debut.
“There’s all that experience stored up – finals, tough games – and, hopefully, that can help to lead the boys and have a good year this year.”
But with captain and ex-Australia loose-forward Trent Merrin seeing his return to the NRL confirmed last week, could Ward return to the middle in 2020?
“You get caught up in a lot of the thick of it at loose-forward and I do like making tackles and working hard,” he said.
“But I think when you’re on the edge you get more of a chance to add a bit of subtlety to your game when attacking.
“I think I do prefer to be on the edge and be on the field longer to finish off attacking moves and help in that manner as well.
“I’ve no idea what will happen yet though.
“I wear number 13 but I know that doesn’t really mean anything. We’ll see how it goes.”
Rhinos have also seen former England second-row Brett Ferres move on to Featherstone Rovers but have recruited Huddersfield Giants back-row Alex Mellor for next year, and they already have PNG international Rhyse Martin, James Donaldson, Liam Sutcliffe and Cameron Smith competing.
Ward suffered a knee injury in February and missed most of the 2019 campaign, only returning for the final two games in September. He then suffered a hamstring problem but is fully fit now and hoping to face Wakefield Trinity on Boxing Day.
“It was extremely frustrating last season,” conceded the two-time Grand Final winner. The main highlight of the year was seeing the turnaround from the boys about halfway through the year and seeing us work for each other and go from strength to strength.
“I had a hand in that off the field – which was a different sort of pride for me – and it elevated my desire to return as I wanted to get out there and play with the boys.
“To get those two games was massive as was putting in a big performance against Warrington.
“But also to get this pre-season, I’m feeling good and really ready to rip in and do something special this year.”
Meanwhile, Ward’s Mantality online magazine is branching out further with Mantality Apparel being launched in a fortnight’s time.
The Cultivate Collection is inspired by the artwork of his late grandmother who, after “cultivating other people’s lives for so many years”, decided to do a fine art degree when she was 60 years old.
With one in four people suffering with a mental health problem each year, the Leeds forward explained Mantality will donate 25 per cent of it’s profits to young people’s education in mental health and those who need counselling and help straight away.