THIRTEEN PLAYERS from Leeds Rhinos’ scholarship programme have signed their first professional contract with the club.
It is Rhinos’ largest academy intake and comes ahead of the return of under-18 and reserve grade rugby next season.
The group includes four players from both Stanningley and Wetherby Bulldogs, two each from Siddal and West Bowling and one Hunslet Warriors product.
All five of the Leeds Rhinos players named in the England Youth squad to take on Wales later this month, Luca Atkinson, Oliver Field, Sam Little, Coby Nichol and Tom Nicholson-Watton, have been included.
The players from Wetherby Bulldogs are full-back Little, half-back Field and back-rowers Ben Mayhew and Joe Gibbons.
Gibbons’ father Dave and Field’s father Jamie both played for Leeds at the start of the summer era.
Rhinos’ under-16s coach Mark Butterill said: “Sam is a natural ball runner with a great ability to beat defenders in small areas of the field. He has good footwork and is solid under the high ball with broken field running a key strength.
“Oliver is a big, athletic stand-off whose strength is his organisation and his ability to take the line on and beat defenders.
“He has good all-round skill with good communication.”
He added: “Joe is a wrecking ball of a back-rower who hurts people when he carries the ball.
“He is big and strong with a good pair of hands which means he ticks all the boxes for a modern-day back-rower.
“Ben Mayhew is Mr Dependable. He is a highly skilled, hard-working back-rower. He always gives his best and has been a consistent performer throughout his time in the scholarship.”
Full-back/wing Mackenzie Turner, loose-forward Nicholson-Watton and props Nathan Snee and Joe Hird have been signed from Stanningley.
“Mackenzie is lightning quick and has great footwork and ability to go past defenders with ease,” Butterill said.
“He has scored some spectacular tries for us this year with his speed and footwork.
“Tom is the scholarship captain and is a natural leader. He is very skilful with the ball in hand and carries the ball strongly.
“Nathan is the son of ex-Bradford Northern forward Gavin Snee.
“He is a strong, aggressive front-rower. He carries the ball hard, defends solidly in the middle and does everything expected from a front-rower in the modern game.
“Joe is an ex-junior karate champion, he carries the ball hard and makes-line breaks.
“He has been a real standout for us this year and deserves his shot at moving up.”
England Youth players Nichol – a centre – and prop Ajhani Wallace come from the Siddal under-16s team who won the BARLA National Cup final last month.
“Coby is an aggressive centre,” Butterill said. “He is a tall and athletic whose defensive skill is a big part of his game.
“AJ is a fast running prop who loves to carry hard and skittle defenders.
“He is strong and powerful and is aggressive in everything that he does. He has become a real fans favourite among the scholarship supporters.”
Loose-forward Atkinson and scrum half Jonah Parsons join from West Bowling and centre Andrew Stewart from Hunslet Warriors.
Butterill enthused: “Luca is a highly-skilled forward, but is equally at home doing the tough work for his team.
“He has been consistently good throughout his time in the scholarship
“Jonah has pace to burn and the ability to beat defenders all over the park.
“His high-energy running has resulted in some spectacular tries for his team this year.
“Andrew is a big, strong, athletic centre who has a strong carry and good footwork who also defends aggressively - all the things you require in a modern-day centre.”
Rhinos director of rugby Kevin Sinfield has high hopes for the new signings.
“It is fantastic news for Leeds Rhinos we have secured such a large and talented group of young players,” Sinfield said.
“It is testament to the outstanding work done by Mark Butterill and all our coaches in the scholarship programme that we have been able to sign 13 players for next season.
“Most importantly, it is great recognition for each player’s community club, who introduced them to the game and have nurtured that ability to this point.
“This is the start of the professional journey for these young players and they will receive the best support and guidance we can provide as they look to reach the very top of the game.”