Teenage prospect Ash Handley is set to complete an incredible journey from matchday mascot to player.
Handley, 17, will make his first appearance at senior level when Leeds Rhinos face Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in Boxing Day’s Heatshot Festive Challenge at Headingley Carnegie.
And his big moment will come exactly eight years after he was Leeds’ mascot for the same fixture.
“It is surreal,” said the former Oulton Raiders junior, who was last week named in the England academy squad for next year’s Test series against Australia Schoolboys.
“I am really looking forward to Boxing Day. I have never played in a game where there’s 9-10,000 people there, so it’ll be a pretty good experience.
“My nerves are all right at the moment, but by the time the game comes around I will be pretty nervous.
“I’m just going to try and do everything right until the game and hopefully I’ll be all right.”
Handley has supported Rhinos since he was at primary school, but only started playing after he was Leeds’ mascot.
“I can’t really remember much about it,” he admitted. “It was in 2005, me and my brother Luke were mascots and we ran out with Matt Diskin. I was nine. I played football back then, but one of my mates from primary school got me into playing rugby.
“He said why don’t you come down and play and it just went from there.”
Handley scored 16 tries in 21 appearances for Rhinos under-19s last year and is earmarked as a potential first-team prospect.
Alex Foster, Liam Sutcliffe, Jordan Baldwinson and James Duckworth got a Super League chance after impressing in the 2012 Boxing Day clash and Handley is aiming to follow in their footsteps.
“Hopefully I can have a pretty strong game then keep it going and hopefully (coach) Brian McDermott will see something in me and I might get a sniff,” said the winger, who can also play centre or full-back..
“From when I first started I have always wanted to be a full-time player. It was a big season last year for young lads getting into the team and hopefully I will get a chance.”
The England call-up has already made it a happy Christmas for Handley, whose family will be out in force next Thursday.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I think everyone in my age group who was signed for Leeds has been picked for England, so that’s good.”
The 2005 Boxing Day game ended in a 42-18 win for Leeds.
Meanwhile, Zak Hardaker has been named Rhinos’ captain for Boxing Day, less than two months after leaving England’s World Cup squad for disciplinary reasons and being fined by his club for unprofessional behaviour.
Coach Brian McDermott said: “Zak has been through some tough times, of his own making, but his attitude since then has been first rate.
“I cannot praise him enough for how he has dealt with that lesson and the determination that he has shown to put things right.
“What happened with England and the World Cup is something I am sure he will always regret, however all he can do now is learn from that experience and he is certainly doing that.
“As a club we took action against him and he has never once complained or whinged about the situation.
“At the end of a long season he had a holiday booked, but he was told to cancel that and start pre-season training.
“Mentally that is a challenge for anyone, but especially a young lad and he has dealt with it well.”