LEADING TRY scorer Ash Handley’s Great Britain call-up has been welcomed by his Leeds Rhinos captain Trent Merrin.
Handley has been named in a 29-strong group who will meet in Leeds next week to begin preparations for the tour to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in October and November.
The squad also includes Rhinos’ Stevie Ward, along with Castleford Tigers duo Jake Trueman and Liam Watts and Reece Lyne of Wakefield Trinity.
Tigers’ Luke Gale and Trinity’s Tom Johnstone would have featured, but miss out due to injury.
Handley is a member of the England Knights squad and one of five players in Great Britain contention despite not being in the elite England performance group.
The 23-year-old is Betfred Super League’s leading try scorer, with 22 and Merrin described his call-up as “a credit to himself”.
Merrin said. “He works hard at training and he’s always tweaking his game and learning from the players around him.
“He deserves that Great Britain jersey and I know he’s a player of the future in international footy; it’s onwards and upwards for him.”
Merrin has seven Test caps for Australia and asked if Handley can reach that level, he said: “Most definitely.
“He has got it all there in his hands, he just needs to back himself.
“He has got blokes like Kev [Sinfield, Leeds’ director of rugby] around him to teach him what it takes to be in that position .
“I will give him my two cents if he needs it from someone in the middle, but he is ticking the right boxes to get it done.”
Handley was among the try scorers in Leeds’ 36-10 win at London Broncos two days ago which effectively secured their place in Super League for next year.
“It is definitely a bit of a pressure release,” Merrin admitted.
“But it’s not where we want to be.
“We have got high standards and now it’s about looking forward to preparing for next year and getting things in place.
“But it’s always good to release that pressure and we can work on the next two weeks and what we want to build on for next year.”
Rhinos are at home to fourth-placed Salford Red Devils on Friday and play host to Warrington Wolves, who are third, a week later to bring the curtain down on their campaign.
Merrin said: “The pressure’s off us for relegation now so it’s more about building into the style of footy we want to play next year.
“We can work on a few combinations and start to prepare for that.”
Interim-boss Richard Agar allowed the players a beer on the bus home from London, but the Champagne corks definitely weren’t popping.
“If you get excited about that you are in it for the wrong reasons,” Merrin said of avoiding the drop.
“The only good thing is the pressure’s off.
“We will get in and do our best for the next two weeks and look forward to next year.”
Two home games is chance to thank Rhinos’ fans who have stayed loyal and contributed to a ground record attendance last Sunday.
“It was incredible, running out and hearing that,” he said of the noise made by the travelling support.
“That’s what got us home in the end.
“If we had gone there and there’d been a handful of fans there it would have been tough, but to have that fanbase travelling to London and spending their cash to support us, it’s something special and something we don’t take for granted.”
Leeds led 18-0 at half-time, but Broncos got to within eight points before Handley’s try got Rhinos back on track.
“It’s hard not to get nervous,” Merrin admitted of Leeds’ second half wobble.
“But I had faith in the team, I knew what we were capable of doing.
“We just needed to settle down and once we did that and got through some sets, that’s when we put some points on the board. It was a bit itchy there, but we came through it.”
Rhinos have won five of their eight games since Merrin replaced the departed Kallum Watkins as captain at the end of June.
“It has been a great challenge,” he reflected.
“It was a bit shaky at the start, there was a lot of outside noise and disruption around us, but once we came together as a group and started playing some solid footy it made my job a lot easier.
“I just needed to lead from the middle and it wasn’t too hard a job for me to do that for the team.
“The boys made it a lot easier for me to take the role on.”
The GB elite performance squad is: Jake Trueman (Castleford Tigers), Liam Watts (Castleford), Sam Tomkins (Catalans Dragons), Jermaine McGillvary (Huddersfield Giants), Jake Connor, Jamie Shaul, Scott Taylor (all Hull), Ash Handley, Stevie Ward (both Leeds), Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson, James Roby, Luke Thompson, Alex Walmsley, Morgan Knowles, Lachlan Coote (all St Helens), Josh Jones (Salford Red Devils), Reece Lyne (Wakefield Trinity), Blake Austin, Josh Charnley, Daryl Clark, Chris Hill, Jack Hughes, Joe Philbin, Stefan Ratchford (all Warrington Wolves), Oliver Gildart, Sean O’Loughlin, George Williams (all Wigan Warriors).