LEEDS RHINOS have handed injured forward Stevie Ward the iconic No 13 jersey for 2016 – and a new five-year contract.
Ward is the first Rhinos player to be awarded a squad number for next season, but is set to miss the early part of the campaign.
The 21-year-old will inherit the number occupied by club legend Kevin Sinfield for 15 years until his move to Yorkshire Carnegie Rugby Union Club last month.
News of the new contract and promotion up the squad list comes on the day Ward is due to undergo surgery to repair a knee ligament injury.
Ward has made 82 appearances for Rhinos since his debut in 2012.
He was a Grand Final winner in 2012 and played in the 2014 and 2015 Challenge Cup final victories, but missed this year’s Super League triumph after damaging a knee in the win at Huddersfield that secured the league leaders’ shield.
“I am immensely proud the club have decided to give me the No 13 squad number, it is a dream come true,” Ward said. “I was six when Kev first wore it, so that is all I have ever known and it is an honour to receive the number after him. Growing up supporting the Rhinos, it was my dream to play for Leeds, but it was always the No 13 shirt I wanted to wear.”
Ward added: “I was really pleased with how last season went for me, it was my most consistent season so far.
“Since I suffered the injury it has obviously been frustrating, but I am positive about the future. The injury was complicated so things have had to take their natural course.
“I will have the operation on my knee [today] and it will be assessed after that how long I will be out for.
“This has been a massive boost for me as I look ahead to the next few months and getting myself back fully fit.
Ward’s new deal will keep him at Leeds until the end of 2020.
“I was delighted to sign my new contract as well,” he said.
“There is a great group of young players here at the club who have committed to each other - and the club - to take the Rhinos forward over the next few years.
“The club have continued to show faith in the young players and rewarded them with long-term deals so we can build something special together.
“Inevitably that will take time, but we know from recent history the benefits that brings.”
Coach Brian McDermott said he is “really pleased” for Ward.
“He thoroughly deserves his new contract and the No 13 squad number,” McDermott said.
“Inevitably people will talk about taking over from Kevin in that number, but Stevie is a different player and person and the pressure he puts on himself to perform for Leeds every time he steps on the field will not change just because he is wearing 13 instead of 14.
“He has got a tough few months ahead of him now, but he is the best possible hands with our medical team and I am sure he will be a great addition to our squad when he is finally fit next season.”
Squad numbers were introduced 19 years ago with the advent of Super League and only Mike Forshaw (1996), Iestyn Harris (1997) and Daryl Powell (1998 and 1999) have previously worn No 13 for Rhinos.