PROLIFIC LEEDS Rhinos winger Ash Handley, says he is “surprised and pleased” by his elevation into the Great Britain performance squad.
The Leeds-born 23-year-old could take another step towards finishing as Betfred Super League’s top try scorer when Rhinos play host to Salford Red Devils tonight.
He will be up against his closest rival, Salford full-back Niall Evalds who has touched down 21 times this year, one fewer than Handley.
Handley has been outstanding during a tough season for Leeds and his try was the game-breaking moment in last Sunday’s win at London Broncos which effectively secured Rhinos’ place in the top-flight for 2020.
Handley made his debut for England Knights last year and was already in the second-string’s performance squad, but has made rapid progress since inheriting Leeds’ number five jersey from Ryan Hall following his departure to the NRL.
Handley, who will attend next week’s first training session in Leeds, described being called into the Great Britain squad as a “massive honour”.
He said: “I am honoured and happy.
“Obviously I have done something right!
“I have just been trying to work hard for the team and play well and it has been noticed.”
NRL-based players have not been named in the 29-man performance group which will be reduced to a touring party of 24 next month.
Even if not selected to visit New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, Handley reckons having been involved in preparations – alongside the best British players in Super League – will take his game to a new level.
“It is a great experience to be involved in it all,” he added.
“I am still only young so it is good for me to be in that sort of set-up and see what it’s like, even if I don’t end up going.
“I am really looking forward to getting involved with it all and being a part of it.
“It is good to get noticed for some of the performances I’ve put in.”
Handley will get another chance to impress Great Britain coach Wayne Bennett and his selectors – including Salford boss Ian Watson – when Leeds bid to end the visitors’ club record six-game winning run in Super League.
Evalds’ presence on the opposition teamsheet will add extra spice to the contest and Handley said: “It is an interesting game, I am looking forward to it.
“It is another big test, they are fourth in the league and it will be a big challenge for us, but hopefully we can go well on the back of a good win last week.”
Though they are not mathematically safe, Rhinos’ points difference means they can’t realistically be overhauled by bottom club London.
The pressure is off, but Handley insisted Leeds won’t be trying to cruise through their final two games, tonight and at home to Coral Challenge Cup winners Warrington Wolves in a week’s time.
He said: “It’s not about that, we are more or less safe, but we’re not cheering about that.
“We’ve got two more games to show what the squad can do and we are looking forward to ripping in.
“We will have to regroup over the off-season and then all come back together and hopefully we’ll be in a better position for next year and we can get up into the play-off spots.”
Considering Rhinos have been at or near the bottom of the table all year, Handley’s position leading the try scoring list is a remarkable achievement, particularly so close to the end of the campaign.
“Hopefully I can get top spot, but you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said of his prospects of holding off Evalds and the St Helens duo Tommy Makinson (19 tries) and Regan Grace (18).
“I will just keep trying my best and hopefully I will end up there.
“I didn’t really set a target, I just wanted to play well.
“It’s not just about scoring tries, it is about other stuff in games as well and I just happen to be on the end of it, finishing some moves off.
“I am happy with how I have gone so far, but I look more at metres and carries and involvements in games. They have been up there as well so I am pleased with how it’s going.”
Handley played alongside Evalds for England Knights last year.
Of his rival, he said: “He’s a good guy and a really good player. He has done well and it’s good to see.”