ENGLAND ACADEMY back Ash Handley will join Leeds Rhinos’ full-time squad on a three-year deal beginning next season.
ighteen-year-old Handley – who played for England’s youth side against France in a recent Test at Castleford – is one of the stars of Rhinos’ under-19s side.
In his second year as an academy player, the former Oulton Raiders youngster is tipped to be the next Leeds teenager to break through into Super League.
Rhinos boast arguably the strongest back line in the British game, but coach Brian McDermott predicted Handley will play in the first team before the end of next season.
“Ash has been a top performer with our 19s this year,” McDermott said.
“He has speed, talent and size and we like his attitude too.
“While he still has work to do and improvement in him, we see him putting pressure on our back line next year, either as a winger or centre.
“He will play some first team games over the next 18 months, so we’ll get a good look at him at this level.”
McDermott praised the work put into Handley’s development by Rhinos’ under-19s coach.
“Chris Plume and his staff need a lot of credit here as they’re the ones who have developed him since he signed as a junior,” McDermott added.
“Ash has pledged his future to us and we will do likewise. Providing he is willing to tip his guts into the challenge, we pledge ourselves into making him into a top-class Super League player.
“That’s the message all our juniors should heed and take note of.”
Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington said the club were keen to reward Handley for his performances at academy level.
“He was already contracted for next year, but we have done a new three-year contract with him which will start from next season,” Hetherington said.
“He will be coming in as a full-time player. He is only in his second year of academy, so he will still be an academy player as well.
“He has been rewarded for his progress with a first team contract.”
Handley touched down 16 times in 21 appearances for Rhinos’ second string last year and has been a regular try scorer this season.
Hetherington added: “He has got a really good build. He can play different positions - centre, wing or full-back - and he’s a very talented player.
“He is one the coaching staff think has a really good chance of making the grade.
“He played all his junior career with Oulton and that club is proving to be a terrific nursery for young players coming through.
“He has impressed and progressed really, really well.”
Handley admitted he was surprised to be handed his long-term contract.
Said the youngster: “I am really pleased to have signed a new deal and to be honest it came as a bit of a shock.
“I didn’t think it was coming, but it was nice that the club obviously think I have a future here.
“I had another year to go on my current contract, which would have completed my time with the under 19s, so it is good to have my long-term future sorted.
“Being offered the new deal has certainly boosted my confidence and it was good to hear from Gary Hetherington that everyone thinks a lot of me.
“Hopefully I can continue to play well for the remainder of the under-19 games this year and if a chance comes to play in the first team, I know that Brian McDermott is prepared to give the young players a chance.”