Back in January – which feels like years ago, let alone four months given how much drama we’ve had since then – I was stood within shot of the photo you see above being taken.
Yes, Leeds had lost their legends. Yes, it was going to be tough. But in seeing Stevie Ward with the number 13 shirt made famous by Kevin Sinfield over the past two decades, you had comfort that the right man was stepping into his shoes. It was part of the reason why I tipped Leeds to make the top four.
Since then, Leeds have been on a rollercoaster of dreadfulness and enduring a season of absolute torment. They’ve been plagued with injuries throughout their squad, with the obvious ones that have been costing them dearly the likes of Danny McGuire, Ryan Hall and even Carl Ablett.
But in all honesty, the one guy Leeds have really, really missed this year is Ward – and you know what? When Leeds get him out on the field, they’ll be a supremely better side for it.
Look at last year. Again, it was easy to get engulfed in everything else happening at the Rhinos in 2015. The halcyon trio of Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai were departing. Zak Hardaker was on a one-man mission to become England’s fullback (and he succeeded). Paul Aiton was a star until he got injured midway through the year.
But when you weigh up the stats, the performances and everything else, Ward was one of Leeds’ standout players in such a remarkable season.
Here is a 22-year-old with remarkable maturity and confidence on such young shoulders. Leeds don’t tend to hand out long-term deals off the cuff: so read plenty into the fact that they handed him a new five-year deal at the same time he was presented with the number 13 shirt.
And here’s the stats to back it up. Only Jamie Peacock (952) made more tackles than Ward’s 927 throughout the whole of last season. For a side who’ve shipped almost 330 points in 13 league games, that’s an almighty hole to fill. 187 of those were from marker too – again, only one player made more, Brad Singleton (192).
Ward’s work-rate is simply vital to a Leeds side who have lost so much experience, grunt and defensive power across a single off-season. With him, you suspect the Rhinos will be vastly improved. Ward’s other stats rank inside the top ten for Leeds players on a regular basis; offloads, carries, metres – everything.
And the scary thing is, Ward will probably only get even better. He’s nowhere near his peak and has plenty of improvement left in him. Leeds are taking their time in getting him back fit after such a serious injury – as they are well within their rights to do.
But when Ward does play, it will become apparent that he has been the injury Leeds have suffered with the most.