Leeds Rhinos are unlocking key combinations in pre-season says Ash Handley

Ash Handley scores a second-half try against Wigan Warriors on Sunday. Picture: Tony Johnson.Ash Handley scores a second-half try against Wigan Warriors on Sunday. Picture: Tony Johnson.
Ash Handley scores a second-half try against Wigan Warriors on Sunday. Picture: Tony Johnson.
THERE ARE no points in the bag, but three pre-season wins have given Leeds Rhinos something positive to build on, last year’s top marksman Ash Handley reckons.

The winger was among the try scorers in Leeds’ 22-10 win at Wigan Warriors two days ago which backed up a 30-4 Boxing Day success against Wakefield Trinity and 34-10 victory over Bradford Bulls in Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s testimonial game.

Rhinos have three more trial games to play, but will field a mixture of fringe and young players at Featherstone Rovers on Friday and send academy squads to Newcastle Thunder two days later and Hunslet on Friday, January 31.

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Leeds had not won at Wigan since 2013 and last Sunday’s result was a boost to their confidence, if nothing else, ahead of the Betfred Super League round-one clash with Hull on Sunday, February 2.

Ash Handley.Ash Handley.
Ash Handley.

“It is a new-look team and we’ve only had three games together,” Handley noted. “When we start gelling together we will be a lot better.

“Wigan have obviously got a strong team and we were a bit on the back foot in the first half, but we showed a bit of resilience to come back and score right at the end of that half and then we turned things around in the second half, so we were quite happy with that.”

A sickness bug ruled out loose-forward Cameron Smith and Australian prop Matt Prior, but that allowed teenage forwards Thomas Holroyd and Muizz Mustapha – who scored the game-breaking try – to gain some game time against good opposition.

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“It’s good for them,” said Handley. “In training the young kids are testing us and when they come in it’s seamless now.

Leeds Rhinos' Muizz Mustapha.Leeds Rhinos' Muizz Mustapha.
Leeds Rhinos' Muizz Mustapha.

“Rather than a weaker player, they can do a job just as well as the first-choice players can.”

Handley also feels combinations are beginning to develop, particularly around scrum-half Luke Gale who was their big off-season signing from Castleford Tigers.

He pointed out: “Galey has a really pivotal role in our team and that was his second game for us. Obviously we will gel with him and get to know how he plays a bit better as the games go on, but I feel we are getting sharper with every game.”

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Rhinos have shown flashes of what they are capable of in attack, but defence – and team spirit – have been their biggest assets over the three pre-season games, Handley believes.

Richie Myler.Richie Myler.
Richie Myler.

“We are working together on our line and defending well together,” he said. “To keep them [Wigan] out when they had a few sets on our line is a real testament to the boys in the middle.

“We had a great camp over in Spain, we had a good time out there, everyone got together and we spent some good time off the field. I think we are showing that when we’re on the pitch.”

But despite all the positives so far, Handley insisted nobody is getting carried away.

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“We have still got a bit of work to do,” he warned. “We were a bit careless with the ball at some points in that first half so we will have to fix up a few of those things.

“We are giving away a few needless penalties as well, but we have still got two weeks and, hopefully, we’ll be ready to go.”

Hooker Kruise Leeming – another autumn recruit – will miss the start of the season because of a knee injury suffered in training before Christmas. That could mean an opportunity in the round-one squad for Richie Myler who has been displaced from the scrum-half role by Gale.

Myler has come off the bench – and scored – at acting-half in all three of Leeds’ pre-season games and Handley said his efforts are appreciated by his team-mates.

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“I thought he did really well [last Sunday], he was probably one of the stand-out players,” he said. “He puts his body on the line, he tackles well and he’s just a good engine in the middle, to say he has not played the position much.”

On a personal note, Handley did not score in the games against Wakefield and Bradford and was twice tackled into touch just short of the line against Wigan before diving over from Stevie Ward’s pass.

“It took me three chances, but I got over in the end,” he said.

“It was nice to score. I know it doesn’t mean anything now, but it was more important to get the win.”