LEEDS RHINOS forward Stevie Ward expected to be battered and bruised today, for the first time in almost a year – and was relishing the feeling.
Ward made his comeback in last Friday’s 30-8 win over Salford Red Devils, 49 weeks – and 343 days – since his previous appearance.
The 22-year-old had not played at any level since being injured in Rhinos’ dramatic last-gasp win at Huddersfield Giants which secured the 2015 Super League leaders’ shield.
Three knee operations and one surgery on a shoulder later, he was delighted to be back, despite the post-match pain.
“My neck is absolutely killing me,” he said.
“I think I got a bit of whiplash. I took a few high tackles, but it was outstanding.
“I really, really enjoyed myself.
“The crowd were fantastic, the boys were fantastic and we got the win, which was really important.
“What a good night.”
Ward came on after 49 minutes, replacing Joel Moon, who was struggling with a groin problem.
A high tackle on him earned a penalty which Jordan Lilley kicked and he made a strong carry in the set leading to Carl Ablett’s crucial try, the score that put the game out of Salford’s reach.
The back-rower admitted his aim was to come on and make an impact.
“I was a bit jittery on the bench,” he said.
“I wasn’t nervous, I just wanted to get on and do my stuff.
“I was a bit anxious because I wanted to get on so bad.
“I just tried to calm myself down and then obviously it paid dividends because we were going well as a team and I just came on and crested the wave, I guess. I told the team I would do everything I could for them and I am glad I got out there and that happened.”
Rhinos do not run a reserve grade and the dual-registration rules made Ward ineligible to play for partner club Featherstone Rovers in the Qualifiers so last Friday was his first game of any sort this year.
He has been in training for several weeks, but admitted a match situation is totally different.
“Fitness-wise, I think the adrenaline of being back for the first time, wearing the No 13 and playing in front of that crowd helped me,” Ward said.
“Just the occasion pulled me through, but there’s no better training than doing that and I will be better for it next week.
“I am always trying to build and there’s three games left so for me they are three big games. I don’t think it will get harder, I think it will be lovely to be back in the routine and doing everything I have wanted to do all year.”
The main objective for Ward now is to have a big pre-season and go into next year fully fit.
He added: “It is great to get these games and that [Friday’s] game was brilliant as a stepping stone. I didn’t shy away from anything.
“I went 100 per cent so it is definitely a base going into next year and it sends a message out.”
The win over Salford Red Devils was crucial to Leeds’ prospects of being in Super League next year.
They have a 100 per cent record after four rounds of the Qualifiers.
And another victory, over part-timers Batley Bulldogs, in four days’ time would secure their top-flight status.
“It was very important,” Ward said of last week’s success. “I am so happy to be part of that.
“We knew how big it was. We want to keep our performance up and we don’t want to drop off at all in the last few games, so we will have the same mentality.”
Rhinos conceded only one try, from a kick early in the first half and Ward described that as a “great effort”.
He said: “We were clearing up for each other and that was the big message. “We knew Salford were going to go for it.
“They kept going until the end so to concede only one try was fantastic.”