Leeds Rhinos: Watkins ready to face challenge

POINT TO PROVE: Winger Kallum Watkins.
POINT TO PROVE: Winger Kallum Watkins.
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All Kallum Watkins wants for Christmas is an injury-free year.

The 20-year-old centre will play his first game since August when Rhinos entertain Wakefield Trinity Wildcats on Boxing Day in the Heatshot Festive Challenge.

This year was a memorable one for Leeds, but Watkins endured 12 months to forget – despite impressive form which brought him 11 tries in 17 appearances.

After returning from a knee reconstruction, carried out in 2010, Watkins suffered damage to his wrist in the first half of the campaign and then re-injured his problem knee in a defeat at Harlequins, the week before Rhinos’ Carnegie Challenge Cup final meeting with Wigan.

He played at Wembley, but has been sidelined ever since and – after being awarded the No 3 jersey for 2012 – he is aware that Boxing Day is the start of a crucial year, when he needs to be playing every week.

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“My right knee – the one I had reconstructed – started swelling up after the cup final,” Watkins recalled.

“I had to have a bit of cartilage taken out and that led to more swelling and more time out. It just wouldn’t settle down and by the time it came to the play-offs the team was playing well and I had to think about next season.

“I just wished the boys luck and all I could do was encourage them to keep up what they were doing.

“Everybody knows what happened after the cup final, the challenge was to go all the way to the Grand Final and not lose a game and that’s what they did.”

Watkins added: “I am fully fit now. I had one moment when it (the knee) swelled up, but apart from that it has been completely fine.

“I am training fully, I have been training hard and I am trying to improve week by week. hopefully it will come good on Boxing Day and in the other friendlies as well.

“My main target is to try and have an injury-free season and to get picked regularly. But it is going to be tough and I will have to play well every week.

“There’s a lot of competition for places in our team and that’s the challenge for me. I want to take it with both hands and make sure I present the right attitude to the coaches and to the other players as well.

“I’ll do my best every game and hopefully keep my place.”

After such a long lay-off, during which Zak Hardaker made one centre spot his own, Watkins has a real incentive to catch the eye in Monday’s game.

From a team point of view, it is an opportunity for coach Brian McDermott to see if what he has been working on in training has sunk in.

Watkins revealed that preparations have been extra-tough this year as Rhinos – with a world title match against Manly Sea Eagles looming three weeks into the campaign – need to hit the ground running.

“It has been a while since I have played, but I am enjoying pre-season,” Watkins said. “It is tough, but we want to start stronger than last year.

“It is tougher this time around because he (McDermott) wants us to come up with a good start.

“We are preparing for the World Club Challenge as well so Boxing Day is something I am looking forward to and I know the other boys are as well.

“They want to get out there and show what they can do. I think it is going to be tough because Wakey have signed a lot of players and are going to field a really strong team.

“We haven’t got our internationals back, but a few of the younger lads will get a chance and hopefully they will take it.”

Watkins will start in the centres against Wildcats. The other centre, Hardaker, is among four of last October’s Grand Final-winning side named in the Boxing Day line-up, alongside Rob Burrow, Ian Kirke and Chris Clarkson.

Autumn signings Darrell Griffin, Richard Moore and Luke Briscoe will all feature and academy products Jimmy Watson, Jamel Chisholm, Stevie Ward and Liam Hood, who have all yet to make their senior debut, will get a chance to impress.

McDermott has named a 17-man squad, but more players could be added.

Leeds Rhinos: Smith, Watson, Watkins, Hardaker, Chisholm, Ward, Burrow, Griffin, McShane, Kirke, Pitts, Hauraki, Clarkson. Subs: Hood, Moore, Singleton, Briscoe.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats from: Mathers, Cockayne, Collis, Mariano, Morton, T Smith, John, Amor, Ellis, Wilkes, Raleigh, Southern, Washbrook, Trout, Wildie, Wood, Johnson, Kirmond, James.

Referee: Matthew Thomason (Warrington).

Kick-off: Boxing Day, 11.30pm.

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