Throughout his 224 appearances for club and 25 for country, there is no doubting that Leeds Rhinos’ Manchester born Kallum Watkins has achieved an awful lot in his career. Recently named in the 2017 world team of the year, he was an ankle tap away from a RLWC final try against Australia and, this week, he has taken yet another step on his way to achieving more as a player.
Following Danny McGuire’s departure from Leeds at the end of the last campaign and after his sterling Grand Final performance where he guided the club to glory, the captaincy was left vacant and the 26 year old Watkins has been named as the new captain of the club – only the seventh in the summer era. After winning everything possible in the domestic game, it can’t be questioned that he has the experience to lead the most successful club in the Super League era and described the chance to succeed the likes of Kevin Sinfield and McGuire as “a massive honour and privilege.” Ten years on from his debut, Watkins believes he is ready for the role, saying “being a leader was probably not something that came to me naturally initially, but it is something I have grown into and now relish. “I feel I have earned that by being myself. I think being captain will make me stronger.” Indeed, from the terraces, Watkins doesn’t seem the booming, dictatorial captain which is often seen in sports but he is definitely a player who leads by example and who shows 100% commitment every time he steps onto the field – something both the staff and fans of the club demand as a pre-requisite of all of their players. Indeed, Watkins suggested as much when he said ““When you watch the great leaders we have been fortunate to have in our dressing room, you soon learn that what you say is more important than how much you say.”
It was perhaps the 2016 Super League campaign which truly saw the centre come of age and step up as a leader in the squad. Following their 2015 clean sweep of trophies, the departures of legends Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai saw Leeds struggle the following year as the club finished in the Middle 8s and faced a struggle against relegation. In an unfamiliar atmosphere to the club and it’s players, many may well have faded and buckled under the pressure – not Watkins. Playing every minute of every Super League match, he finished as the club’s top scorer with eighteen tries and his coach Brian McDermott said “when you look across our group, whilst there are those who have leadership qualities, Kallum is a fantastic candidate who has stood up to be counted over the last 18 months and was an obvious choice for 2018,” adding that “he showed his best when times were hardest.”
It is a testament to his standing in the game and at the club as both a man and player that the players, as revealed by McDermott, were behind the new leader, revealing that “when I told the group that Kallum would be our new captain, the squad were really happy and confident that Kallum will get the job done.” It is also a testament to Watkins strength of character that he has stepped up to the role after what have been – and may well continue to be – struggles with mental health which were bravely made public last season. Remarkably, another leading candidate for the role Stevie Ward has also suffered with depression and it is a great reflection on the club and it’s staff that they have supported both players and put their welfare as a priority which, in turn, has seen them continue to be two of the best and most consistent players in Super League – something which I expect to continue when the new season starts in just over two weeks’ time.