FOLLOWING HIS recent try-scoring exploits, Ash Handley is getting used to being the centre of attention.
The 22-year-old’s form for Leeds Rhinos, since moving infield from his usual wing spot, has been a revelation.
After starting the campaign outside the first-choice squad, Handley has touched down seven times in the last four matches to become Rhinos’ top try scorer and will be aiming to extend that run away to Wakefield Trinity tomorrow.
He was not selected for Rhinos’ opening two games of the season and did not make the trip to Australia for the World Club Challenge, playing instead on dual-registration for Featherstone Rovers against Toulouse Olympique in the Betfred Championship.
He was called up on the left-wing when an injury-ravaged Rhinos side lost at Widnes Vikings in Betfred Super League round three, then switched to the left-centre in the following game against Hull.
A match-winning brace when Leeds beat St Helens began his current scoring streak and he retained his place at centre for the Easter Monday win over Salford Red Devils, despite Liam Sutcliffe and Jimmy Keinhorst both having recovered from injuries suffered against Widnes.
I’m enjoying a relatively new role for me at centre and just enjoying the consistency of rugby I’m getting, being out there and putting a few good performances in.Ash Handley
Not surprisingly, Handley says he is “enjoying my rugby at the minute”.
He reflected: “I’m enjoying a relatively new role for me at centre and just enjoying the consistency of rugby I’m getting, being out there and putting a few good performances in.”
Handley joined Leeds as a winger and has also played at full-back and in the right-centre.
“As a junior I was predominantly a centre, but obviously at senior level there’s a lot of different things to take into account,” he said.
“The technical side of defending and some of the things you don’t really see, you have to be good at.
“I am kind of learning as I’m going and just getting better at those sorts of things. I am just enjoying my role there.”
Handley is a proven try scorer – averaging more than one every other game at senior level – but admits the defensive aspect of playing at centre is something he is still getting to grips with.
“It is quite a difficult position to defend,” he said.
“Especially when the opposing team is attacking your line. You just have to be concentrating at all times.
“It is a little bit more work than the wing, you are one in and you do a bit more, though I don’t do as much as Kal [Watkins] on the right, he always has more tackles. I am enjoying being a bit more involved in the game and having more of an impact on the results.”
Handley played – in the centres – for Leeds’ second-string in pre-season games against Coventry Bears, Featherstone and Keighley Cougars and admitted he wasn’t expecting a senior call-up so soon.
“I am happy to be in as early as I am,” he said.
“Obviously he [coach Brian McDermott] has a set team he is thinking about using and I wasn’t in that mix at first so I’m happy I’ve got a chance.
“I have got a chance through injuries and I am happy I’m having a bit of consistency in my own game and some of the things you don’t see, off the field.
“You only see the 80 minutes of performance you put in, but the work you put in away from rugby is obviously showing on the pitch for me.”
Handley faces strong competition in all his three positions, with Jack Walker and Ashton Golding both vying for the full-back spot, Ryan Hall and Tom Briscoe established on either wing and Sutcliffe and Keinhorst now available to step in on the opposite side of the field to Watkins.
“That’s what it’s all about, just testing each other,” Handley said.
“There’s competition for each position. Walts [Josh Walters] and Cam Smith are two very good young lads and they are giving Mac choices to make.
“Everyone’s stepping up and making it hard for him. It just shows what a good group of players we’ve got here, when even if we’re not full strength we are still giving the top teams a great game.
“We are enjoying it, everyone’s bouncing off each other at the minute and we are all learning from each other and testing each other.”
Of tomorrow, Handley predicted: “It will be a tough game. Wakey are a good side, especially at their ground. We’ll put a game plan in place, take it over there and see how we go.”