“My debut was probably the worst game I’ve ever had for Leeds, so at that moment in time I probably wasn’t thinking I’d still be here today.” – Ash Handley

Ash Handley

“As captain, in everything you do you need to be thinking ‘Is this the right thing to do for the team?’. You have to put them first as much as you can and that is what I am trying to do.”


Despite an inauspicious start to his career at Leeds, Ash Handley has gone on to captain his club and play for England.

AS DEBUTS go, Ash Handley’s for club and country couldn’t have been more different.

On Sunday, 17th August 2014, Handley was one of three players, alongside Ben White and Ashton Golding, making their Rhinos bow when they went down 40-36 to London Broncos, in a match, and performance, they’d probably all like to forget. But fast forward to April this year and Handley starred with a hat-trick as he made his senior England debut against France at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium.

With spells away from his hometown club while on loan at Featherstone Rovers, it took the now 27-year-old some time to find his way to becoming a first-team regular at Headingley following that first appearance, but now he has, he has not looked back.

“My debut was probably the worst game I’ve ever had for Leeds, so at that moment in time I probably wasn’t thinking I’d still be here today,” Handley admitted to Rugby League World.

“We were the only team that year to get beaten by London Broncos, so it wasn’t the best of debuts.

“There were a lot of us younger lads playing and a few of us making our debuts that day and we were winning quite comfortably at half-time but they ended up coming back and beating us.

“It was a difficult day and don’t remember too much more about it other than we played awfully.

“I had to bide my time for a few years after that game to break into the first team, but it made me more hungry for it when I finally got my opportunity.

“So to then make it and play for England this year was something special. When you have been striving for something for so long, it was a nice moment to savour when finally came.

“It was a complete contrast to my league debut – even without the tries.

“Again there were a few of us making our debuts that day so it was a special day for us all. Shaun Wane had got hold of the group really well, we were only with him a short time, but everyone wanted to play well for him, not just England. He is a great coach that gets the best out of his players.

“My aim now is to keep my spot for the Tonga test series later this year. I’ve not played solely on the wing this year so I just need to keep being consistent for Leeds, whatever position that’s in, and that’s all I can do.”

For many of the Rhinos faithful watching on from the stands it won’t feel like two minutes since a youthful Handley, another successful product of the club’s Academy structure, really started to make his mark on the side – scoring hat tricks in two different games against St Helens in 2015.

But in the nine years since his debut, Handley has gone on to prove himself as one of the most consistent wingers in the competition.

With that amount of experience behind him has come greater responsibility, initially being named as vice-captain, and then stepping up from that role to lead the team out on numerous occasions.

But that is not the only change Handley has faced under the coaching of Rohan Smith.

A switch in position has seen him move from the wing to fullback more than once this season already.

And while both new roles have brought their challenges, they have been challenges Handley has relished and would like to experience more of.

“Before I made it into the first team I’d not played much on the wing, so that was a new position that I had to adapt,” added Handley.

“I have tried to do the right things since then to become a good winger in Super League and try to get to the point where I can be up there as one of the best.

“But I have also enjoyed learning the fullback role. It is one of the most important positions on the pitch and it takes some time to get used to, so it’s not a case of it being a three or four game thing before it clicks.

“It is quite different to being on the wing. On the wing, there are a lot of high-intensity efforts, where you’re going hard for a period and then maybe not working as hard for a bit before going in again, but at fullback, you’re constantly moving, it’s maybe not as hard all the time but you’re always on the move.

“If a move to fullback was going to become a long-term one then I may have to look at how I train because you do need a different sort of fitness to play there.

“But for now it’s just about learning the role and filling in there when needed and trying to do a decent job there.

“The only way I am going to get used to fullback is by playing there so I am happy to do that when needed. I have played a bit of centre as well this season and don’t want to be pigeonholed to one position.

“I want to help the team as much as can.

“I can do that as well by leading by example as captain.

“I know a lot of fans think I should be shouting and balling behind the sticks, but you don’t get the message across when doing that. A lot of the time it’s about getting stuff right off the field, getting everyone on board, making sure things are running smoothly, that there’s a good connection with Rohan and he has players to reach out to if he thinks things can be tweaked.

“As captain, in everything you do you need to be thinking ‘Is this the right thing to do for the team?’. You have to put them first as much as you can and that is what I am trying to do.”

Clearly settled at the club he grew up watching as a boy, it was perhaps no surprise when Handley signed a new long-term deal with the club in June, that will keep him at Headingley until the end of 2026, by which stage he’ll be 30 years old with 13 seasons under his belt.

The fact he agreed on new terms when he still had over a year remaining on his previous contract is testament to the loyalty he has shown to the club over his time there. But he is not the first to do that, and the former Oulton Raiders junior admits that the chance to emulate what the likes of Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire did for the club was another big reason for his decision to re-sign.

“It was a fairly easy decision to stay,” added Handley, who going into the break for the Challenge Cup semi-finals had scored 112 tries in 186 appearances for the club.

“I still had another year to go on my contract so it wasn’t as if I was going to the open market, but I have a young family so a bit of security in that sense is always nice.

“I have never gone into the final year of a contract not knowing what’s happening next, but I’d like to think if I ever was I would be ok with that because I am confident in my own ability so would be confident that I would get a good contract somewhere.

“Thankfully I have never been in that situation and I’m happy with where I am.

“It’s nice to know I’ll have done so long with the club by the time I get to the end of this contract but you don’t pay much attention to things like that until you look back on a career.

“I don’t know how other clubs are set up and what systems they have in place, all I do know is that Leeds is a great place to be.

“I’m from Leeds so it’s probably easier for me to stay here than not. But other players have come in that have been in different systems elsewhere and Leeds just do it better than others and that’s why so many people want to stay here for longer.

“I grew up watching guys like Kev, Rob, Jonesy and Mags and saw what they gave to Leeds.

“It was crazy that when I started coming through I was training alongside them every day. I was in awe of them and the club was just somewhere I wanted to be.

“Working alongside them I took their sense of professionalism from them – the way they conducted themselves as a group, and acted on and off the field. They were all very classy and hard-working players. That’s the kind of player I wanted to be and I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

“Everyone wants to win trophies and we are striving for that at Leeds.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)

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