Leeds Rhinos: First-team run is a dream come true for half-back Lilley

Jordan Lilley at Rhinos' awards night.
Jordan Lilley at Rhinos' awards night.
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THE LATEST youngster to break into Leeds Rhinos’ Super League side says he is happy to play out of position if it helps the team.

Jordan Lilley is a specialist half-back, but made his first start for the club in last week’s home defeat by Castleford Tigers, playing at hooker.

He completed the full 80 minutes and was named Rhinos’ official man of the match.

He followed that up by winning the Chris Sanderson memorial award, as under-19s player of the season, at this week’s club presentation evening.

The 19-year-old – a product of the Stanningley amateur club – is highly-rated by Rhinos’ backroom staff and has played in Leeds’ last three games, but is still waiting to get a run in his favoured scrum-half role.

Lilley, who has also featured on dual-registration for Hunslet Hawks this year, made his debut in a Super League win away to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in June and got his latest chance when Rob Burrow suffered a quad injury in Rhinos’ Challenge Cup final win over Hull KR last month.

Leeds were already without their first-choice hooker, Paul Aiton, who suffered a season-ending broken arm earlier in August and has signed a three-year contract with Catalans Dragons, beginning next year.

Kevin Sinfield filled in as starting hooker – though prop Adam Cuthbertson was named in the position on the team sheet – for five matches, before Lilley made his full debut last week.

The teenager, who took on extra responsibility including goal kicking duties after Sinfield suffered a dead leg early in the second half, has retained his place in Rhinos’ initial 19-man squad for tonight’s must-win First Utility Super-8s fixture at Huddersfield Giants, though he could drop out if Burrow returns.

Regarded as a possible long-term replacement for Danny McGuire and Burrow when they eventually hang up their boots, Lilley said he is relishing every minute of his opportunity at the elite level – even if it is in a largely unfamiliar role.

“It’s all right,” he said of playing at hooker.

“I have played it a couple of times and it gives me a bit more freedom.

“I can scheme around and I can free up Mags [Danny McGuire] and Kev [Sinfield] so they can play a bit more.

“Overall, I enjoy it and we’ll see what happens with it.”

As acting-half, the hooker gets his hands on the ball more than any other player in the team and Lilley is enjoying that involvement.

“You can control it a lot more from hooker,” he said.

“You are constantly on the ball.

“I would say the big difference [between playing hooker and scrum-half] is the amount of running you have to do.

“You have to get your running legs on. You have to be everywhere.

“Towards the back end last week, the last 10 minutes, I was feeling it in my legs, but I will keep working hard.

“I will go to training and do more running there and keep going and if that’s where Mac [coach Brian McDermott] wants to play me, I am happy to play anywhere I am picked.”

The 80 minutes last week has boosted Lilley’s confidence ahead of tonight’s game, if he gets the call.

A lifelong Leeds fan, he said: “When I first ran out last week, I stood there taking it all in and I thought ‘wow, it’s what I have dreamed of ever since I was a kid’.

“All my family were watching and I was a bit taken aback.

“It was very good to get out there and play the whole game, but a very disappointing result.

“For me, playing at Super League level – with and against these top players, people like Luke Gale who controlled it [last week] – gives me more confidence, whether I play in the under-19s or the first team.

“I have a lot of confidence now, it is just a shame we are on the back of three defeats.”

A win tonight would secure the league leaders’ shield and Lilley reckons Rhinos are capable of snapping out of their poor run.

Rhinos’ form has collapsed since their record-breaking Wembley triumph and another loss this evening could see them miss out on a home tie in next week’s semi-finals.

That would be a huge disappointment for a team who have led the way for most of this season and Lilley said: “We haven’t got any momentum at the moment, which is difficult, but we will kick on and this week we will be better.

“We’ve had some bad results, but we just need to fix up a few things – a couple of missed tackles here and there. If we’d done that last week, Castleford wouldn’t have scored the tries they did and maybe the result would have been different.

“I am sure we will be better and stronger this week.”

Huddersfield Giants: from Grix, McGillvary, Cudjoe, Wardle, Murphy, Brough, Robinson, Crabtree, Huby, Ferres, Hughes, Lawrence, Kopczak, Ta’ai, Broughton, Ellis, Leeming, Roberts, Smith.

Leeds Rhinos: from Hardaker, Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Peacock, Ablett, Sinfield, S Ward, Cuthbertson, Singleton, Keinhorst, Walters, R Ward, Lilley, Garbutt.

Referee: Robert Hicks (Oldham).

Kick-off: Tonight, 8pm.