A new era begins for Leeds Rhinos tonight: and it is hard to imagine few better prepared than Kallum Watkins to lead the reigning Super League champions into 2018 and beyond.
A decade ago, Watkins arrived a shy teenager from his native Manchester; he was so young, he had to live with a guardian during his inaugural few years at the club having moved along the M62 almost immediately after leaving school.
But now, 10 years on from making his professional debut for the club – and mere months after coming desperately close to becoming a hero in the World Cup final for England – Watkins is tasked with leading the Rhinos forward without long-standing stalwarts Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow. That begins for real tonight at Warrington.
To many, the challenge would be a daunting one. But Watkins, who featured in every single one of Leeds’ games in their most difficult hours in 2016, has never been the kind to shy away from a challenge.
He told TotalRL: “I’m immensely proud and really honoured to be captain of this team and this special club. It could have been a number of guys who’d got the role and they’d have done a great job, but the experiences I’ve had will only help me in the role.
“Looking back, I remember that my guardian used to work at the club, and pretty much as soon as I finished school I moved over on my own.
“I got homesick in the first couple of weeks but I’m really laid back and it never bothered me too much. I’d always go home and see the family, but the desire to become a Rugby League player at a huge club was always the one I wanted to follow. Those experiences help me as a player, and now as a captain.”
Given his undisputed talents, it is perhaps a surprise the NRL has never proven to be too strong a lure for Watkins. Has he ever come close to walking away from where it all began?
He admitted: “It’s gone very quick, but I’ve always enjoyed my time here and I’ve always been happy.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve wanted to move on, and there were always other opportunities. We’ve been successful, and that always helps, but I’ve loved this environment and I continue to love it.”
Critics will immediately draw comparisons with Leeds’ 2016 campaign and this upcoming season. Two years ago, Leeds failed to adjust to life without some of their departing legends. Watkins, as you would expect, does not see that happening again.
He revealed: “We went through a process in 2016 where we needed to develop more leaders into our team, and I became one of those in tough times, definitely. Stevie Ward, Brad Singleton and several others also followed in the footsteps of me and developed as real leaders for this club. That helped us in 2017 and mark my words, it’ll definitely help us in 2018.
“We now know how to get ourselves out of trouble and not rely on the big players in the past who had the experience of getting us out of holes. 2016 was about learning how to react when things didn’t go well and I think it stands us in good stead for 2018.”
But above all else, despite the undoubted pressure on his shoulders, Watkins is intent on enjoying his new role as the leader of one of the country’s biggest clubs – after seeking out advice from some familiar faces.
He said: “I’ve spoken to Danny McGuire – he dropped me a text saying congratulations, which was nice, and I’ve had plenty of support. I spoke to Kev (Sinfield) before everything was announced and he told me to be myself and just enjoy it, and that’s what I’m going to do.”