TONIGHT’S RETURN to Leeds Rhinos action is ideally timed for Stevie Ward.
The Betfred Super League round-two showdown with Hull KR at Elland Road will be the 24-year-old forward’s first match since undergoing shoulder surgery after last year’s Grand Final and gives him chance to get some game time before Rhinos face Melbourne Storm in the World Club Challenge in eight days’ time.
Going into that without a tune-up would have been a tall order and Ward is pleased to have the opportunity to test his overall fitness.
“I definitely want some minutes under my belt for that,” he said.
“It is going to be a tough game over in Melbourne. A lot of it is muscle memory, but a lot of it will come down to fitness, which I’ve been gaining.
“I’ve been doing a lot of running and fitness and hopefully the Hull KR game will give me some game-specific fitness ahead of the big one.”
Tonight’s fixture will have a big-match atmosphere, being played on what is effectively neutral turf.
“It is going to be some occasion,” predicted Ward, who stressed his shoulder has now fully healed.
“Leeds and Hull KR are big games, but being at Elland Road has added a different dynamic to it.
“Magsy [ex-Leeds captain Danny McGuire] is playing as well – and my good mate Chris Clarkson – so it’ll be special.
“There’s been a good build-up and I think both sets of fans will be intrigued by that, but for us it’s rugby league and both sides have to crack on and do their best.”
Ward will be making his comeback in unfamiliar surroundings, but reckons that adds to the challenge.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done it normal,” he said. “I will just throw myself in there and see what happens.
“The performance at Warrington last week set the stall out for what we are going to do this year and how well we want to play.
“We are going off the back of that and we’ll take the differences and things that are out of our normal routine in our stride.”
Coming back from long-term injury is nothing new to Ward, who suffered a season-ending shoulder dislocation – away to Hull KR – in 2013 and missed most of the 2016 campaign due to a severe knee injury.
That experience, painful as it was, will come in handy tonight and Ward stressed he won’t be getting over-anxious or excited by his return to action.
“I have got good at that in recent years, ” he said. “I kind of just go with the flow.
“It is different, playing at Elland Road and then off to Melbourne.
“It is something I earmarked as wanting to get back for and it helped, in a way, to have a goal. I am feeling very fit and I am ready to go.”
Tonight will be Ward’s first game since Rob Burrow, who is now Rhinos’ academy coach, and McGuire left the playing staff.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan is the last of Leeds’ golden generation still playing for the club and Ward – entering his seventh season in the first-team squad – is now one of the senior players.
He admitted it feels like a “new era” and said: “There’s quite a batch of players who’ve been around when Kev [Sinfield], JP [Jamie Peacock] and Magsy were around.
“Taking things on board from them is something that’s always been instilled in us, to take it on and make sure Leeds carries on being successful.
“There’s less and less old faces – though Jonesy’s still knocking around – and it is a different set of challenges, but it is different people coming to the fore and offering what they can do.
“It is a different kind of feel to it, but still the same kind of stuff we’ve learned off those guys.”
Of his own role, Ward added: “It is a bit different, seeing the younger lads get more of the banter thrown at them and you can just avoid it – sometimes.
“There’s definitely more stuff you feel you can bring to the table, from experience and being in similar situations. You have to remind yourself that a lot of the younger guys need that advice or the stuff you’ve learned over the course of the years.
“It is great to have Kal [Kallum Watkins] as captain and seeing what he can do.
“One of the great things Kal said is he’s not going to change.
“He is going to be himself, which a lot of the boys got confidence from.
“Kal being himself is good enough for us.”