IF things go well for Leeds Rhinos’ latest debutant, he could find himself selling fans’ replica shirts with his own name on the back.
Josh Walters, 19, became Rhinos’ newest first teamer when he entered the action off the bench in last Friday’s tense 25-12 Tetley’s Challenge Cup win over Leigh Centurions.
A former rugby union player, Walters had been playing league for just a year and five days when his call-up came – but he was already a familiar face to many supporters after his part-time job in Rhinos’ Headingley Carnegie club shop.
That role has been put on the back-burner since Walters – who is a student at Leeds Metropolitan University – began training with the first team, but he said: “I have said if they need me, I will do it. I haven’t really had time, focusing on studies and training as well, but I really enjoyed working in the club shop. I went to see them after the game and they were really happy for me. They all congratulated me, which I am thankful for.”
The appearance against Leigh completed a whirlwind rise for Walters, who was born in Guildford, lived for a while in Surrey and was brought up in Northallerton, North Yorkshire and who admits he paid little attention to league or the Rhinos until he joined Carnegie four years ago.
“I played my first game of league on June 1 last year, away to Hull,” he recalled. “After playing rugby union, that was the hardest thing I have ever done. There’s so much running, but I have really enjoyed it.
“If you told me then I’d be making my first team debut a year and a week later, I would have laughed in your face. But it has been a really enjoyable year and now I see myself as a rugby league player, not a rugby union player any more.”
Walters was one of several young Leeds Carnegie players who switched codes to broaden their rugby experience. He said: “Last year I got told by Mark Luffman, who is the head of the (Carnegie) academy I had two options: I could either go across to Rhinos, because Barrie (McDermott, then head of youth) was interested in me, or go on loan to a team in National Two, for example Otley, or maybe Wharfedale in National One, where I’d probably be playing out of position. That might not have been best for my development, so I was told ‘go across to Rhinos, they are interested in you, it will be tough, but it will be good fun’ and that’s what it has proved to be.”
Walters has played both centre and second-row for Rhinos and came on against Leigh in the latter position. He said: “I’d say I am a second-row. I enjoy playing centre if I have to or if I am picked there, but I would definitely say I am a second-row.
“I have played a bit of loose-forward as well and I enjoy it as a forward. There’s more to do than there is as a back. No disrespect to any other position, but I like to be involved.”
Walters is still learning the game and he added: “I was thinking, the first time I was 18th man – against Wakey a couple of months ago – how many games of rugby league have I actually played?
“I think it was 20-25 then and now I have played just over 30. It is a great thrill, but I am still learning. Everybody is, but I am still at the start of my learning curve and it is very new to me.”
Walters played in Rhinos’ Boxing Day draw with Wakefield and had been on the fringe of the first team for several weeks before Friday’s breakthrough.
“I was told I’d be in the squad on Wednesday,” he said.
“I didn’t get told until just before the team run on Thursday I’d definitely be playing. I had a nervous wait on Wednesday night. I’ve been 18th man twice so I was kind of getting used to it, but to be told I was playing, I was thrilled.”
He had to wait until the 52nd minute to get on and added: “I was speaking to Robbie Mulhearn about when he made his debut. He didn’t get on until the second half, so I wasn’t really surprised. Before half-time I was all right, but afterwards I came back out and I was thinking ‘this is really it’.”
The game was in the balance at 12-12 when Walters was introduced and he said: “I am really thankful, Mac (coach Brian McDermott) has shown a lot of faith in me, a new player to the game.
“He spoke to me on Wednesday and asked what I could do for the team, which was basically run my blood to water. That’s all you can do in that situation.
“I am happy, I spoke to Barrie McDermott and (former Great Britain prop) Terry O’Connor before the game and they said ‘it’s your debut and you may think you have to do something special, but you don’t. You are in the squad for what you do week in and week out. Don’t look to do anything special, stick to your game and what you know’.”