IT WAS NOT long ago that Jack Walker was running around at his local amateur club Oulton Raiders.
Yet, on Saturday, the teenage Leeds Rhinos full-back will make his debut for England Knights against Papua New Guinea in the entirely different environment of Port Moresby.
Walker is one of three Leeds players called into Paul Anderson’s squad, joining club-mate Liam Sutcliffe who scored in the bruising 12-6 first Test win in the remote city of Lae last week.
Knights hope to round off their historic, eye-opening tour – which started with a week’s training camp in Brisbane – by completing a 2-0 series success.
Players have been visiting schools around PNG, the only country in the world where rugby league is the national sport, and received a hero’s welcome from the fanatical locals.
Walker said: “It’s really different from back home especially going out into the streets when all the people are coming up to you wanting shirts and things.
“It is crazy. I didn’t get to play the first game but watched from the sideline and the whole crowd was obviously massive rugby fans. There was even people jumping over to try and get into the stadium. It’s just rugby-mad over here.
“I’ve been told this morning I’ll be starting at full-back on Saturday so I can’t wait for that now and am really looking forward to experiencing it myself.”
Before departure, boss Anderson described Lae as making Castleford’s Wheldon Road ground ‘look like Wembley’.
Walker, who comes in for Salford Red Devils’ Niall Evalds, admitted: “That’s right! We’re in Port Moresby now, the capital, and it’s a bit of an upgrade from Lae… it’s actually got buildings!
“Over in Lae there was huts and stuff like that, and hardly any shops. Over here there’s quite a few stadiums, a few places to eat out but the locals are just as great.”
Walker is quickly ticking off major accolades despite his tender years. He became the youngest-ever Super League Grand Final winner when, aged just 18 years and 60 days, he played in Leeds’ victory over Castleford Tigers last October.
Next, he featured in Rhinos World Club Challenge at Melbourne, going up against the great Billy Slater, and was also shortlisted for the 2018 Super League Young Player of the Year.
Walker constantly remains unfazed, though, so the intimidating atmosphere of Port Moresby is unlikely to daunt him.
He said: “I’m getting more experiences as I go through my career and this is another great one. It was very physical last week and PNG have some good players with David Mead and a few big forwards. But we’ve been working on a few things in training. I’m sure we’ll do a job.”
Anderson makes six changes ensuring all his 23-man squad play at least once. Leeds’ Ash Handley and Mikolaj Oledzki join Walker along with Warrington’s Harvey Livett and Danny Walker plus Catalans’ Matt Whitley. Hull’s Dean Hadley has returned home ill.
England Knights: J Walker; Davies, King, Sutcliffe, Lineham; Patton, Atkin; Oledzki, Powell, Lees, Livett. Whitley, Hughes. Substitutes: D Walker, Handley, Mulhern, Philbin.