Leeds Rhinos’ latest young star is still coming to terms with being a Headingley hero.
Part-time player Robbie Ward, 18, grabbed the headlines when he scored a try on his debut in Rhinos’ 20-6 win over Hull last Friday.
Ward, who works for a vehicle hire company, was the eighth academy graduate to make his Rhinos debut since the start of 2013 and the second this year, after prop Rob Mulhern.
He began the game at hooker and played the opening 29 minutes before returning for the final 16. Eight minutes into his second spell he was on hand to take advantage of a Kirk Yeaman fumble and mark his first appearance with a dream try – to the delight of his grandparents, cousins and brothers, who were among the 15,000 crowd.
From Normanton, Ward started playing rugby league at the age of five, around the time his grandparents first took him to watch Leeds in action at Headingley Carnegie. He played for Normanton Knights for nine years before moving to Oulton Raiders when he was 14.
After signing for Rhinos he was coached by Carl Ablett and Keith Senior in the club’s scholarship system and was a star at under-16 level before moving up to the 19s. Recalling his touchdown, Ward admitted he was surprised to find an opening in a tight contest which produced only four tries.
“I didn’t know too much about it,” said Ward, who was born just five months before Leeds’ first Super League match.
“A kick came through and someone dropped it right in front of me, so I just pounced on it – picked it up and put it down. It was brilliant, I could not have wished for anything better.”
Ward – no relation to his team-mate Stevie Ward – got his chance with regular hookers Paul Aiton (illness) and Rob Burrow (broken collarbone) both on the long-term casualty list.
Coach Brian McDermott opted to play Chris Clarkson out of position in the acting-half role for the first three games after Burrow’s injury, but then looked to the under-19s for a specialist hooker.
“I got the word on Monday that I wasn’t playing with the 19s and I could get a call-up to the first team,” Ward said. “Then Brian told me on Wednesday I could be playing.
“When Rob got hurt Chris Plume (Rhinos’ under-19s coach) told me I could get a call-up at any time, so I had to be ready for it.
“It doesn’t seem real; it has come really quick. I am only 18 and I didn’t expect to get a chance so soon, but I thought I went all right.
“I wanted to make an impact and show I can play week-in and week-out. I couldn’t really do any running out (of acting-half) because the ruck was a bit slow with the weather and it was tough in defence, because they are a lot bigger, stronger and faster. It is a lot more physical than the under-19s, but I thought I did all right.”
Ward, who has been training with the first team once a week, described lining up alongside his former coach, Ablett, as “a bit strange”, but said his new team-mates had made the step up easier than it might have been.
He said: “They all came over and had a word with me. They said ‘play your normal game and you’ll be all right’. They kept talking to me out on the field, telling me what to do, so they were really helpful. I used to play with Sutty (Liam Sutcliffe) until he got called up into the first team. I spoke to him about it and he told me what it was like and what I needed to do. I thought he was the best person to ask, because of what he did last year.
“I am a Leeds fan, I used to come and watch them, so it is a bit strange playing with people I used to watch, but it is really good playing with people who have got so much experience.”
Ward, who got a taste of senior action in last year’s Boxing Day game against Wakefield, admitted he was relieved when the first whistle blew and he could throw himself into the action.
“I was all right until Thursday night when I started thinking about it,” he said. “I was really nervous on Friday, but as soon as you get into it you are all right.”
The game three days ago completed a memorable week for Ward, who had played for England’s academy against France in a one-off Test at Castleford seven days earlier.
With one senior appearance under his belt he is now hoping to retain his spot in the team for this week’s trip to Warrington Wolves.
He said: “Hopefully I have done enough to keep my place, but we’ll see. If I don’t play on Friday I will take a lot from the Hull game and take it into the 19s game this week. It is a lot different to the 19s, the speed is a big difference and it’s a lot more physical.
“A lot of young players come through at Leeds so it is a really good club to be at. They give you a chance.”