Leeds Rhinos' James Donaldson talks testimonial, 2024 plans and why Nene Macdonald's return is good news

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After everything he has been through in a career now into its third decade, few players are more deserving of a testimonial than Leeds Rhinos forward James Donaldson.

A hot property in his teens, the Cumbrian made his debut for Bradford Bulls in 2009 and has since endured a series of setbacks which would have broken many other professionals. It seemed to be all over at the end of 2018 when he was left without a club, but Leeds took him on as a trialist and he has since become a mainstay of their squad, making more than 100 appearances.

Though he hasn’t served 10 years in one team, which is the usual qualification for a testimonial, the 32-year-old has been granted a three-month benefit for services to the game and is “over the moon to get it sorted”.

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He said: “Where else would you want to have a testimonial than Leeds Rhinos? It’s 15 years I’ve done now, I debuted in 2009, signed for Hull KR in 2014 and Rhinos on a trial in 2019.

James Donaldson celebrates Rhinos' home win over Warrington in August. Picture by John Clifton/SWpix.com.James Donaldson celebrates Rhinos' home win over Warrington in August. Picture by John Clifton/SWpix.com.
James Donaldson celebrates Rhinos' home win over Warrington in August. Picture by John Clifton/SWpix.com.

“I’ve had three acls, loads of other injuries and lots of adversity: two relegations, one with Bradford and one with Hull KR, two administrations with Bradford. It has been a rollercoaster ride, but I wouldn’t change anything in my career now.

“I could look back and say ‘what if this’ or what if that’, but all those things have made me a better person, probably a better player, a better professional and probably a better dad as well.

“It has been an amazing journey, there have been so many times when I thought about giving up and I suppose a testimonial is a reward for getting through the tough times as well as the good times.”

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An emotional James Donaldson following Rhinos' Wembley win over Salford in 2020. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.An emotional James Donaldson following Rhinos' Wembley win over Salford in 2020. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.
An emotional James Donaldson following Rhinos' Wembley win over Salford in 2020. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

The move to Rhinos, after Hull KR decided not to keep him on, breathed new life into Donaldson’s career and he stressed: “It has been a joy to finish off at a club like Leeds where we’ve had bits of success. I’ve played in a Challenge Cup final at an empty Wembley - as well as one for Hull KR - and I got to a Grand Final with Leeds as well. They are things you dream of as a kid and joining this club has made my dreams come true.”

Donaldson’s immediate future was settled in August when he signed a new one-year contract, extending his previous deal which was due to expire at the end of the season.

That will take him to the age of 33, but he insisted: “I am not saying that will be it. I will see how it goes.

“I want to make sure I am still competing and I am at my best. If I don’t think I can give my best to this club I will hold my hands up and say that. I will end it when I think it’s right, not let injuries or somebody else end it for me, I hope.

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James Donaldson - centre, along with Leon Ruan and Cameron Smith - in a publicity picture for Rhinos' 2024 kit. Picture by Leeds Rhinos.James Donaldson - centre, along with Leon Ruan and Cameron Smith - in a publicity picture for Rhinos' 2024 kit. Picture by Leeds Rhinos.
James Donaldson - centre, along with Leon Ruan and Cameron Smith - in a publicity picture for Rhinos' 2024 kit. Picture by Leeds Rhinos.

“I will continue to give my all for this club until my body tells me I can’t do that any more. There’s no one more hungry than me or more willing to do the hard work. That’s what will tell me when it’s all over.”

Leeds’ recent big money swoop for Salford Red Devils duo Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers has fueled fans’ hopes of a turnaround in fortunes following a dismal 2023 campaign. Rhinos haven’t finished in Betfred Super League’s top four since 2017 and Donaldson admitted this year’s eighth place was not good enough. A first batch of players will begin pre-season training next Monday and he vowed: “As a team we have to be better, without a doubt.

“The way things panned out this year, there’s been stuff that was out of our hands and we’ve had to deal with that and a lot of adversity as well. But I think we are putting the foundations in to be a lot stronger next year.

“We’ve got the youth and the quality there to bring through and watch flourish over the next few years. We’ve also got that experience to help those young kids and to help steer the team in the right direction when things get tough.”

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One player who won’t be at the club in 2024 is Papua New Guinea centre Nene Macdonald who was released after failing to return from paternity leave in Australia and has since signed a long-term contract with Salford. Donaldson, however, will be pleased to see his former teammate back in England.

He explained: “He’s got my headphones! He asked to borrow them the game before he left. When Rohan [Smith, Rhinos’ coach] told us he was still in Australia, all I could say was ‘what about my headphones’? All the lads had a laugh about that, but I’m sure I’ll get them back one day.”