LEEDS RHINOS forward Stevie Ward is putting club before country.
Ward says he will focus on cementing a place in Rhinos’ first-choice 17 and then think about making an England breakthrough.
The back-rower played his first game of the year in last Friday’s 24-0 pre-season win at Featherstone Rovers, the day after being named in England’s elite performance squad.
That selection means he is at the forefront of coach Wayne Bennett’s thinking for this autumn’s World Cup – in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea – and is in line to feature in May’s one-off Test against Samoa in Sydney.
Despite playing only four times last year – following a long-term knee injury – Ward was a late replacement for his Leeds team-mate Brett Ferres in England’s 2016 Four Nations squad, though he did not get a game.
The England boss, who will name his squad for the Samoa game in April, clearly rates Ward very highly, but at the moment the 23-year-old is more focused on Leeds than England.
“After everything I’ve had to deal with, all the injuries and so on, it’s lovely to be earmarked, to be around that and to be included,” said the Rhinos forward.
“I am really happy to be on the scene going ahead, but I am not thinking too much into it.
“I am only thinking into what I am doing right now.
“If it is to be, it’ll be so I am happy to go with the flow.”
Getting some games under his belt with Leeds is Ward’s immediate priority, but he insisted he hasn’t set a target of going through 2017 injury-free.
“I don’t like saying ‘injury-free’,” stressed Ward, who made his Rhinos debut in 2012 and has 86 senior games under his belt.
“I could be making a bit of an identity out of being injured a lot and I don’t want to be doing that.
“I want to be going into these games as a fit player.
“I have got to be robust and fit and that’s what I am doing for the start of this year and by the time England comes hopefully I am in the frame.”
Ward came through last Friday’s game unscathed and feeling good and he is aiming to be on the teamsheet when Rhinos begin their Betfred Super League season at St Helens a week on Thursday, in the opening game of the competition.
“It was the first game I’ve played in a good while when I’ve had some energy left in the tank,” Ward said of last weekend’s final warm-up.
“I think that’s good for going forward and I am ready to fire into Saints, if selected and all being well.
“Friday was a good game to get stuck into and make some tackles and some carries.
“It was really important to get a game in pre-season.
“I think back to 2014 and I missed more or less the whole pre-season, all the trials and a few of the first games.
“I went straight in against Warrington and did okay, but it was a hit and miss season really, so I am glad to be there before the season has started. I am ready to keep feeling better each week.”
A knee problem suffered during training with England, possibly as a result of pushing himself too much in his comeback after a year out, hampered Ward in the early stages of pre-season.
But after starting running earlier this month he said: “I am feeling good.
“All the staff have been fantastic, all the physio and conditioning staff. Since I got back after England I’ve done the right things going into this year.
“It is a long-term injury I had and it’s a long process coming back from it. There’s still steps I need to make in my game and fitness and all those areas.
“I am happy to be doing it and it’s good to be building and building.”
Rhinos will put the final touches to preparations during a training camp in North Yorkshire this week.
Ward added: “I am extremely excited for the season.
“There’s a good 10 days to go yet, there’s more training and hard work for me to get through and I have got some sharpness to get back so hopefully I can throw myself in against Saints and do a good job for the team.”