LEEDS RHINOS’ win at St Helens might have been a shock, but the identity of their two-try hero wasn’t.
Ash Handley has haunted Saints in recent seasons, scoring a remarkable 10 tries against them in only six appearances.
He grabbed home-and-away hat-tricks in clashes with the Merseyside outfit in 2015, crossed once in each of the sides’ two meetings the following year and then, three days ago, struck twice in the second half as Rhinos ended the Betfred Super League leaders’ 100 per cent start to the season.
Handley’s only non-scoring appearance against Saints was in a Super League win last June, when he was among Leeds’ substitutes. Saints’ hearts must have sunk when they saw Handley named on Rhinos’ team sheet for only the third time this year, but he insisted the victory last Friday was about the team, not individual performances.
“It’s an all right record, but it was more about the win,” Handley said after opening his try account for the campaign. “We went really well as a team, there were a lot of young boys in there and we did really well.”
Rhinos trailed twice and were two points behind before Handley bagged his brace in a five-minute spell in the final quarter.
“I think Saints were playing really well,” he said of the first half, which ended 12-12.
“We just managed to stick in there and got a try at the back end of the half to keep us in it. We were quite fortunate, probably, but as a team we stuck in there and got the result in the end.”
Leeds were without eight members of their full-time squad due to injury, seven of them being first-choice and Handley said the result underlined the champions’ strength in depth.
“Obviously we are confident in ourselves and we wanted to go there and do a job and show we mean business this year,” he said.
“I know we had a few missing, but we were confident whoever’s in the team could do a job and that’s what we ended up doing.
“We do feel like a very tight-knit group this year and no matter who’s in, you are expected to do a job.
“And that’s whether that be a young lad or someone who’s experienced and been in the team a long time.
“If you don’t you are going to get your backside kicked. That’s what it was [on Friday].”
Handley, 22, added: “Cam Smith came off the bench and did a tremendous job for us.
“It just shows we are all pushing and we are pushing the experienced lads for a shirt. The average age on the bench on Friday was 19 and we’ve shown we can do it against the best teams.
“Saints hadn’t lost before that and we’ve shown what we can do.”
Handley has played most of his first-team rugby as a winger, but is filling in at centre in the absence of Liam Sutcliffe and Jimmy Keinhorst.
“Jimmy and Sutty are injured and I’m probably next in line for centre,” he said.
“It’s not too bad. I feel I am quite versatile in the backs. I can probably play wing, centre and full-back. I’m just happy to fill in wherever I can and hopefully I’ll put in some good performances and give Mac [coach Brian McDermott] a headache for when they come back.”
Rhinos’ win sets up a blockbuster Grand Final rematch against Castleford Tigers at Elland Road on Friday.
“It’s another big game,” Handley said.
“They just keep coming now, week by week.
“It’s already round seven this week and it feels like pre-season’s only just finished.
“We’re looking forward to it, we’ve got to build and go again.”
Rhinos’ under-19s were beaten 26-24 at Saints. Harry Newman (2), Liam Hamill and Tyler Dupree scored Leeds’ tires and Harvey Spence kicked four goals. Rhinos are one of three clubs being linked with Salford Red Devils prop Craig Kopczak, along with Hull and Hull KR.