Lydia Walker’s loving life back playing netball at Leeds Rhinos

When Yorkshire Jets folded in 2016, homegrown talent Lydia Walker thought her netball career was over.

By Nick Westby
Saturday, 16th April 2022, 6:00 am

The 19-year-old from Huddersfield who learned the game at Salendine Nook High School, Greenhead College and Huddersfield Giants club, had been good enough to represent England at age group level but with no local team to facilitate her hobby, decided to dive headlong into gaining her teaching qualifications.

Now 26, Walker is a secondary school teacher in Holmfirth.

But the netball itch had not been sufficiently scratched.

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Lydia Walker acknowledges the fans at the end of Leeds Rhinos Netball's match with Wasps. Picture: Matthew Merrick.

So when Leeds Rhinos were granted a licence to join Vitality Superleague in 2021, Walker saw a way back in.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she tells the YEP.

“When Jets folded there were other things I’d always wanted to do, like Camp America which was a great opportunity.

“But ever since then netball was something I’d always wanted to go back into, I’d just not had the opportunity to do so, and with me wanting to train as a teacher, I didn’t want to be travelling.

Lydia Walker in action for Leeds Rhinos against Strathclyde Sirens. Picture: Matthew Merrick.

“So with this being a Yorkshire franchise I thought this is definitely the right time to have a go. It makes it a bit more special when you’re representing your region.”

She watched Rhinos’ first year – played behind closed doors due to the pandemic – from afar.

“When I watched them they all seemed to get on so well which was such a pull for me,” she says. “That came across so much, the team environment, was so strong and it was something I wanted to be a part of.”

So last summer Walker, who plays centre or wing defence, put a call into Maggie Birkinshaw, an old coach of hers at Jets and now assistant at Rhinos.

Lydia Walker in action against London Pulse. Picture: Morgan Harlow.

“I said I’d be interested in being involved and she asked me to come along, and I grasped the opportunity,” says Walker, who plays as a centre or wing defence.

She impressed enough to earn a contract as a training partner, the level below the 12-strong full-time playing squad.

Walker hoped to get a bit of matchday experience, maybe even a bit of gametime: “It was all about just being back in the elite environment, I wasn’t expecting much, I was just looking forward to learning and training.

“But then at the beginning of the season there were a few out with Covid, and as a training partner if there’s a contracted player from the 12 not available, you’re pulled up.

“It was actually the first game of the season I was pulled into, which was a huge surprise, but a nice one.

“I remember feeling really nervous, just because it had been so long that I’d been involved in a matchday (2016 with Jets).

“I had a lot of mixed emotions. I was loving being part of the Rhinos set-up and the team, but then all the thoughts were swirling about ‘am I still up to scratch, it had been a long time, if I’m given an opportunity can I grasp it and play my part’.

“There was a lot to think about, but I think I got there. And the team was so supportive, which was nice.”

Half a season in, Walker has been involved in the matchday squad in all but one game.

“Way more than I expected,” she laughs.

“I feel I belong now. Just the group of girls that are there make you believe in yourself, it’s a really supportive culture and that automatically made me have more faith in myself.

“By learning from people like Jade Clarke you grow in confidence. So I do now feel like I fit.”

Walker only has one morning a week to train with her team-mates, the rest of the time she is teaching.

“We do have other team sessions in a week that are evenings, but it is difficult knowing in the back of your mind that everybody else is in a session and you’re not.It’s a bit like playing catch-up. I work all day and then go and do my sessions in an evening, sometimes on my own. So sometimes things like that are difficult.

“They might have discussed something tactically that I might have missed out on. So for me it’s making sure I’m up to speed tactically so that when I’m slotting in it doesn’t look like I’ve been missing.”

That has made the Easter holidays all the more special. Walker has spent a full week’s worth of training preparing for the double-header in Birmingham this weekend with Celtic Dragons (today 2.45pm) and Team Bath (Sunday 2pm).

Beyond that, does she have any long-term goals?

“No, not really. I usually do but I just want to enjoy every minute and ride that wave and see what happens,” she says.

“Because I’m enjoying it so much I don’t want to focus on what happens, I’m just enjoying being a part of it, learning and playing again.”