The Big Interview: Jordan Lilley on life on the fringes at his beloved Leeds Rhinos

In the first of a new series, League Express’ Aaron Bower meets a rugby league personality – be that player, coach, official or someone else – to talk about their career, achievements and current standing within the game. First up, Leeds’ prodigious half-back Jordan Lilley on breaking through as a teenager, finding opportunities hard to come by since and his long-term future in West Yorkshire..

Only two years have passed since all appeared right in the world for Jordan Lilley.

In only his seventh senior appearance, Lilley squared off against childhood hero Johnathan Thurston in a World Club Challenge and, at that stage, the prospect of him fulfilling the potential many declared he had from such a young age seemed an inevitability. A certainty.

Of course, now only 21, there is no reason why the undisputedly-talented Lilley can still reach the very top of the sport. His raw talent is there for all to see – but what is equally-evident is how, since that night against Thurston and the world’s best in February 2016, things have not quite gone to plan.

There have been brief highlights; Lilley eventually played 23 times for the Rhinos in a season of struggle during 2016 and looked handily placed to kick on last year. However, the emergence of Joel Moon at stand-off, plus the renaissance of Danny McGuire, kept Lilley’s nose largely out of joint in relation to breaking into the first-team in 2017.

Loan spells at Bradford and Leigh – plus time on dual-registration with Featherstone – has been the bulk of Lilley’s senior game-time since that breakthrough year in 2016. So how does a player deal with training all week knowing that, in all probability, the chance of playing for your hometown club is remote at best?

“It’s frustrating – that much you can’t avoid admitting,” Lilley tells TotalRL.

“Knowing that you train all week and come the weekend, you’re probably not going to be pulling a shirt on and playing. That’s why we play the game, to play games, and I just want to play every week. What I’ve got to do is deal with it as best as possible and remember I’m only 21. I’m sure if I do the right things an opportunity will either come at Leeds or on loan somewhere else.”

For such a young player, Lilley speaks with great maturity – and he makes a pertinent point: it is easy to forget he is just 21 given the bang with which he appeared on the scene a couple of years ago. Long touted as the heir apparent for Danny McGuire in the heart of Leeds’ side long-term, there was a rare sighting of Lilley last weekend during Leeds’ defeat to Catalans, as their injury problems handed the youngster an opportunity.

“For me, this year has been very stop-start and I won’t lie.. it’s been tough,” he admits.

“I went to Leigh to get some game-time and got injured almost straight away, which was hugely disappointing. I’ve been in and out at Featherstone too, but I got my chance with Leeds last week. It’s not been the best year for myself but I just have to keep training hard and believe things will fall into place some time soon.”

With the aforementioned Moon returning for Friday night’s cup quarter-final with Leigh, there is again the possibility that Lilley could be reduced to the role of spectator. For his own confidence – and his ability to impact on a frustrating year for Leeds so far – Lilley himself is hopeful he can at least secure a regular run of games in the side at some point this year to show what he is capable of.

“Half-backs in particular need a run of games to start performing,” Lilley insists.

“It won’t happen after just one game and I think people automatically assume that with the way I was talked about, I’ll be dropped in for one game and be the best player in the world. That’s not how it works.

“In 2016 I got 23 games under my belt and while I wasn’t perfect in all of those, it took time to get to grips with it. There are some experienced players here and I’ve got to gain their trust, and I’m not going to do that after just one game. It’ll take at least three or four, and it’s about getting those games in a run and hoping things will come good. I’m at that point now where I just want to play.”

But if that run of games does not materialise, there is already a feeling in some quarters that, for the sake of his own career, Lilley could be best placed to try his hand elsewhere. He, however insists that is still some way from even becoming a remote possibility.

“It’s never crossed my mind that there wouldn’t be a long-term future at Leeds,” he says.

“I’m still pushing and trying to get people out of the team. I see my future at Leeds but you’ve got to see how things go; at the end of the day we reach the end of the season and I’m still not playing regularly.. maybe you have a look at what’s going on and see where things go from there. But right now: I see my future at Leeds and nothing has changed.”