Leeds Rhinos: Ash Handley says Super League semi-final is 'crazy' achievement after tough year

Being 80 minutes away from the Grand Final is a “crazy” achievement after such a tough year, Leeds Rhinos winger Ash Handley reckons.

Rhinos are preparing for a Betfred Super League semi-final at St Helens on Friday, with the winners going through to face either Catalans Dragons or Hull KR at Old Trafford eight days later.

Rhinos lost four of their opening five league matches and have been hampered by injuries, coronavirus and suspensions all year.

Two players - Zane Tetevano and Mikolaj Oledzki - returned in last Thursday’s play-off win at Wigan Warriors and fellow casualties Alex Mellor (knee) and King Vuniyayawa (foot), were named in the initial 21-man squad.

Ash Handley, right, is congratulated on his try at Wigan. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Mellor warmed up before the game and half-back Luke Gale, who suffered knee damage in August, has begun running and could have an outside chance for Friday.

Having lost 40-6 at St Helens three weeks earlier, Rhinos will be underdogs, but Handley believes they have done well to get this far.

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“It’s crazy, when you think about all the adversity that’s been thrown at us this year,” he said. “The injuries we’ve had and the year with Covid - it’ll be a great story if we can get to that final.”

Ash Handley jumps for joy after scoring against Wigan. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Saints, who had a bye last week, have beaten Leeds twice this year, but the 8-0 success at Wigan suggested Rhinos should not be underestimated.

Handley reflected: “It was a good win, a hard-fought game, low scoring and a tough battle really.

“We knew they’d be hard to break down and it would be tough, but that’s the nature of play-off football.”

Before this season, Rhinos had not won a competitive game at Wigan since 2013. They have now done it twice in successive visits, less than a month apart and without conceding a point in either game.

Rhinos' travelling fans enjoyed the win at DW Stadium. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Another huge defensive effort will be needed this week, but Handley believes the clean sheets against Wigan are a reason to go there in confident mood.

“Historically, they are one of the best clubs in the whole of Super League so to be able to do that at their place when it really mattered [was encouraging],” he said.

“Obviously, we did it in the league fixture, but we needed to do it to progress this time and we did that. We fought really well again.”

On the other hand, Rhinos managed only three tries in the two games.

It took them 37 minutes to break the deadlock during the first encounter and the play-off was scoreless until the 50th.

Rhinos had to be patient and wait for opportunities and Handley said that is an indication of how far they have come over the course of this year.

“We felt positive at half-time, even though it was nil-nil,” he recalled.

“Going back out in the second half, the message was just to keep going, keep ticking away and then we managed to get that score.”

Tetevano was available after suspension and it was Oledzki’s first game since suffering a toe injury, which required surgery, at the end of July.

“It’s good to have a lot of the big boys back in the middle,” Handley added.

“We’ve missed them and to be able to choose from pretty much a full side was good for us.

“The lads who came back did a great job.”

Handley scored Rhinos’ try and was Sky TV viewers’ choice as man of the match.

“It has been a pretty difficult year for myself with injuries and Covid so I’m just happy to be playing week in week out now and it’s building nicely for these play-off games,” he stated.

The try came after Richie Myler tipped on a kick by Kruise Leeming and Handley felt that was an impressive moment of skill from the full-back.

He said: “It was a good little tap down and we had bodies around there.

“Luckily it fell for me, there was nobody in front of me and we got over for the win.”

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