Leeds Rhinos ace Ash Handley wings in for GB chance
Handley has been drafted into the Great Britain squad for next Saturday’s final tour match, against Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, when he could make his Test debut.
The call-up caps 12 months during which Handley has toured PNG with England Knights, been awarded Rhinos’ number five jersey, topped their try-scoring chart - as well as finishing joint-second in Betfred Super League - and featured for England in the World Cup Nines.
“On the back of the year before last, I had just started to force my way in at Leeds a year ago,” Handley - who had been due to begin pre-season training with Leeds on Monday - recalled.
“Last year I ended up on the wing and I had a good year. It has all happened so fast and this is where I am a year on. It’s crazy, but I am really excited to be involved.”
Handley, who played at centre for Leeds in 2018, was named in the Great Britain performance squad earlier this autumn and featured for England at October’s Nines tournament in Sydney, but wasn’t selected for the original Lions tour party.
He was belatedly called up after Ryan Hall suffered a knee injury and another ex-Leeds man Zak Hardaker - who had been due to fill in on the left-wing against New Zealand today - damaged a shoulder in training.
Handley is due to arrive in Australia tomorrow and insisted: “I am looking forward to it, I can’t wait to get out there again.
“We’re going to be in Brisbane for a few days, then PNG. I got a call on Wednesday morning from Kev [Sinfield, the Rugby Football League and Rhinos director of rugby].
“I thought my season was done this year and I was getting ready for pre-season to start next week, but then Kev rang me and said I’m needed so I am pretty chuffed.”
Most of the Great Britain squad was drawn from players on duty in the Nines and Handley’s familiarity with the set-up was one of the reasons Wayne Bennett - who coaches England and the Lions - opted to bring him in.
“It was great, I loved it,” he said of his time in camp last month. “It’s a great set of lads, we did a bit of training in Sydney which was great and then the games in the Nines were a great experience to be a part of.”
A Great Britain cap would be another huge step forward for 23-year-old Handley. He said: “It would be a great honour to be involved and hopefully I get the chance to play.
“It was a tough game when we were there last year. The heat is a big factor and the home fans really get behind PNG. It will be a tough match, but hopefully we can turn up and do a good job.”
Wing could be one of the most hotly-contested positions in the England squad at the 2021 World Cup, but Handley has moved up the pecking order.
“I know it’s a while away, but I’d love to be part of the World Cup squad,” he admitted. “If I go well over there and be involved in the games coming up before the World Cup and keep consistently playing well at Leeds, hopefully I’ll put myself in the mix.”