LONG-TERM CASUALTY Stevie Ward is hoping to be back on the field for Leeds Rhinos in July.
Ward has been sidelined since suffering a serious knee injury in Rhinos’ final league game of last year, away to Huddersfield Giants.
The 22-year-old forward, who was on the verge of an England call-up, was hurt late in the win which secured the league leaders’ shield.
He missed the Grand Final, when Rhinos completed a clean-sweep of available trophies and has since undergone three operations on his damaged knee and one to clear-up a minor shoulder problem.
He was yet to wear the iconic No 13 jersey, awarded when Kevin Sinfield retired from rugby league at the end of last season, but is confident he is now nearing the end of a long road.
“I am back in July,” said Ward.
“That to me seems like it is just around the corner.
“People think it is ages away, but I have been out since September, so in those terms July is around the corner.
“It is a big thing for me, I have got massive motivation to get back fit and I am working hard in the gym.
“It is exciting times.”
Ward is the only member of Rhinos’ senior side not to have featured this year.
He made his debut in 2012 and was a Wembley runner-up and Grand Final winner later that season before playing in last year’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final triumph.
Ward admitted having to watch Rhinos struggling so badly this season has made his lay off even more painful and given him extra motivation to come back stronger than ever.
“I am not running yet,” he said.
“I am doing stuff in the pool and on the AlterG [anti-gravity treadmill].
“I am hoping to be back running in the next three weeks, so there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“When I think two months, there’s something to go at.
“I want to get back playing and help the boys out.
“It is so frustrating watching them all year.”
Ward missed much of the 2013 season with a shoulder problem and did not regain his best form until last year.
He admitted injuries have disrupted the start to his senior career, but is hoping the worst is now behind him.
“I feel like I have been on a bit of a merry-go-round,” he reflected.
“I get back fit and playing, I win something and then I get injured again. That is what my career has been like.”
Ward has kept himself occupied during his layoff by working on a new online magazine, Mantality, which will be launched at the Magic Weekend in Newcastle.
Meanwhile, skipper Danny McGuire came through unscathed after making his return from a quad injury in Rhinos’ 52-12 home defeat by Castleford Tigers last week.
Joel Moon (groin) has a chance of featuring in Saturday’s clash with Wigan Warriors at Newcastle’s St James’ Park, but Tom Briscoe, Ryan Hall, Beau Falloon, Carl Ablett and Brett Delaney remain on the long-term casualty list.
Meanwhile, Huddersfield’s four-month search for a replacement for Brett Ferres has ended with the signing of former New Zealand Warriors back-row forward Sebastine Ikahihifo.
The 25-year-old forward, who is 6ft 2in and weighs 16st, joins the Giants on a two-and-a-half-year deal after being released by St George Illawarra.
Ikahihifo, who joined the Dragons from the Warriors at the start of the season but failed to break into their NRL team, will belatedly plug the gap created by the loss of Ferres, who was sold to Leeds on the eve of the season.
Giants coach Paul Anderson said: “We have been looking for quality players for a long time now.
“And I am really pleased that Sebastine has decided that now is the time for him to come to the UK and that we are the club of his choice. He is someone we have looked at previously.
“But he wanted to remain in the NRL – now that’s changed we will welcome him with open arms.
“We have lost a number of players from the squad for various reasons and Sebastine will bring some size, maturity and grit to our pack.