Leeds Rhinos v Wakefield Trinity: Stevie Ward ready to step up to the plate
IT may be a fixture which is often quickly forgotten once the real business begins, but there is added significance to the Boxing Day festive derby at Headingley.
For Leeds Rhinos, the traditional visit of Wakefield Trinity, which kicks-off both clubs’ pre-season campaign, marks the start of a new era.
The final members of Rhinos’ golden generation, forwards Carl Ablett and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, retired in September.
That left Stevie Ward, 26, as the club’s longest-serving player, having made his debut in 2012 and their squad for 2020 includes just three men over the age of 30: half-back Luke Gale (31), new front-row signing Matt Prior (32) and forward Adam Cuthbertson (35).
In addition, for the fourth time since Kevin Sinfield hung up his boots at the end of the 2015 treble-winning campaign, Leeds have a new captain.
Ward inherited the No 13 jersey from Sinfield four years ago and has now taken over as the team’s on-field leader, following Danny McGuire, Kallum Watkins and Trent Merrin.
That was a surprise only in that it had not happened sooner.
Though injuries have held him back, Ward has been marked out as a future Leeds captain since being a Grand Final winner in his debut season.
“It is an honour,” said Ward of his new responsibility.
“I have strived towards it since I was very, very young when I first started playing.
“It was something I did for my amateur team, Churwell Chiefs, and it felt right then.
“On through the scholarship and academy it was always something I strived towards because I felt it was something that was right for me.
“I am hoping for a big year for me and the boys and there’s a good energy here at the minute to do it.”
Ward is not exactly a novice at first-team captaincy.
“I’ve done it a few times,” he recalled.
“I did it away at Catalans and against Leigh in the Challenge Cup and Huddersfield at home as well, but obviously now we are going into a new year, a new decade and a strong identity is coming together for this group of players.
“I think it does feel like a new era.
“It is the turn of the decade and we have got some players coming in who have really taken to the club and the club’s identity.
“They have helped grow it and the group has stamped its own mark on what it takes to be a Leeds Rhino.”
Ward stressed: “I think we’ve got a good mix of old and new coming in and we have got a really good opportunity to ensure the Rhinos way continues to flourish.
“The boys are working really hard, everyone is on the same page and they all want to pull up trees for each other.”
Ward had an injury-hit 2019, suffering knee damage in Rhinos’ fourth game of the season and not returning to the side until their penultimate fixture.
However, he insisted he is now “fit as a fiddle”, has trained every session in pre-season and is excited about prospect of the captaincy taking his game to a new level.
He said: “I think as a person I like to be a leader and try and get things done.
“Hopefully, it will bring the best out of me.”
The previous wearer of the No 13 shirt led Leeds through the most successful period in the club’s history.
Appointed captain in 2003, Sinfield, now Leeds’ director of rugby, lifted the Super League trophy seven times, the World Club Challenge and League leaders’ shield on three occasions and Challenge Cup twice.
“There’s been a few 13s who have done well in the captaincy,” added Ward.
“It is big shoes to fill and there’ll be different challenges and different things to come across.
“But the group of players I have had to learn off during my time have been the absolute best and I will take every bit of that with me now, leading the team.”
Only one of Leeds’ four new signings, scrum-half Luke Gale, has been named in the starting line-up for today’s Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge against Wakefield Trinity at Emerald Headingley.
Hooker Kruise Leeming (knee) and second-row Alex Mellor (groin), have been ruled out by injury.
Wakefield coach Chris Chester will introduce full-back Alex Walker, hooker Josh Wood and forward Jay Pitts, who had an earlier spell with Wakefield and played in the Boxing Day game 12 years ago.
There are two other Yorkshire Boxing Day derbies.
Former St Helens half-back Danny Richardson is expected to make his first appearance for Castleford Tigers at home to Bradford Bulls, alongside ex-Salford winger Derrell Olpherts and prop Tyler Hepi from Toulouse Olympique.
Bradford’s squad includes new signing Sam Barlow, for his first game since completing a four-year ban, alongside fellow recruits Greg Johnson, Anthony England and Adam Rooks
Batley Bulldogs, under new coach Craig Lingard, visit Dewsbury Rams in an all-Championship showdown.