It’s fair to say that Leeds Rhinos’ back rower Stevie Ward has had a fair few lay offs in his career thus far and Get ’em Onside met the 24-year-old as he was getting back towards full fitness following a head collision with team mate Mikolaj Oledski in their recent loss to Huddersfield. Ruled out of the Rhinos’ home defeat to Catalans, this interview took place two days before that match and, despite featuring in the second half of the Giants match after the incident, he admitted that probably wasn’t the best idea. “This is probably the first day where I’ve started to feel better from it really,” he explained. “It’s taken a week really to get back to being ok. I’ve been quite foggy, very dazy and slow at processing information but now I’m getting there,” and, of his re-entrance into the fold following the incident against Huddersfield, he confessed it wasn’t the best choice. “I should definitely not have come back on. I went a bit under the radar with Mikolaj being so bad and my automatic position is to just get back up and carry on.”
That desire to get back and carry on, no matter what, though, is one attribute which has seen the academy graduate rise to fan favourite status and, while he himself doesn’t feel he has been at his best this season, his commitment to the cause is unquestionable. In what is far from Leeds’ – or his – best year, Ward admits that it’s been frustrating for the team. “Obviously we’ve had players out but they’ve been key players in key positions and it’s hard then to get into the flow of what everyone else is doing – that synchronicity of a team drops away when people come in and out of the team,” he expressed. “It’s been so frustrating but it’s opened up a new challenge to see what we can do with what we have got and, against St Helens, we showed that we can still do it and have a dig.” On whether that match gave the Rhinos a bit of faith that they will turn their form around, Ward agreed, adding that it “reinstilled the belief, that faith in the process and what we are doing. That’s hard when you’re losing back to back but Saints showed that we can still do it.”
A positive aspect of Leeds’ injury woes has, however, undoubtedly been the opportunities it has offered to the likes of Mikolaj Oledski and Cameron Smith – both of whom have shown that they can mix it with the experienced pros of Super League – as well as Harry Newman, the young centre who played against both Saints and Catalans. All three of whom have graduated through the Rhinos’ academy setup like Ward and, such are the tender ages of the three aforementioned prodigies, the three time Super League winner now finds himself as one of the team’s leaders. “I’m really excited for the future,” Ward declared. “There is always a transition period when key players leave at the same time [Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai in 2015, McGuire and Burrow 2017] and this year we have to find the way forward.” Of the new talent coming through currently at the club, the back rower confirmed his excitement as seeing them emerge first hand, revealing a name he finds to be similar to himself. “It’s really exciting. Cam [Smith] reminds me a lot of me – he’s always wanting more for himself, wanting more opportunities for himself,” he revealed.
However, Ward being one of the new generation’s leaders may not have even come to pass had the days building up to Leeds’ Grand Final triumph over Castleford gone differently. A mere week before Super League’s showpiece event, the second rower suffered a shoulder dislocation in the semi-final victory over Hull FC which seemed certain to rule him out of contention for the final. After the injury, Ward admitted that, when in agony, he was going to leave rugby behind. “It wasn’t that I was giving in – I felt that I had something behind me to go and do something else, it was more moving on than giving in – and I felt that I had that faith in what I can do and what I could choose to do.” Clearly a deep thinker, Ward professed that the injury gave him an opportunity to push on. “I needed to create space from that stimulus. They say that history doesn’t repeat itself but it felt like for me it was going to – it felt like I was going to miss another Grand Final [Leeds’ 2015 success]. I had a choice – I could walk away and see how things went or I could get my shoulder back in and have a real good go.”
“That’s why that week was so special for me,” Leeds’ number thirteen shared, emotional about what he believes was one of the best of his career. “Off the back of the group of players being able to do that after 2016 and for me to be able to go do that, choose what I wanted to do… it was massive.” Indeed, Ward not only took to the field but played for the full eighty minutes, exorcising the demons from his 2015 absence while also proving himself right to do everything he could to take to the Old Trafford field last October. “When you’re on that mission to win, it’s almost like you transcend the pain, transcend the normal and your right mind so the shoulder wasn’t an issue at all – the effort to play the full match after that injury… it was magical for me.” Reflecting once more on the victory and his remarkable physical feat to feature in it, the boyhood Leeds fan professed that “in this game, it’s hard to take stock – you rarely get chance to unless it’s after a Grand Final victory. I had that opportunity and it was amazing.”
It must be remembered that sandwiched in between Leeds’ 2015 and 2017 Super League triumphs was one of the worst seasons of the club’s history as they finished a lowly ninth, missing out on a chance to retain their title and having to participate in The Qualifiers. That experience and adversity, however, only served to ensure that last season’s exploits were even more special. “After 2015, where I felt I played great, my course took a different path as I had a twelve-month injury to get back from, so 2017 was me coming back from that,” he explained, continuing that “there was a lot of drive for the whole team as well as me so, with that cherry on the top at the end… it was amazing for us all.
Now, after that highly emotional week, Ward spoke of the pride in which he took the armband for the first time against Catalans recently. While the Rhinos succumbed to the Dragons in France last month, it was still an honour for the Leeds-born forward and he is looking forward to fulfilling the role for the rest of the season once he returns from concusison. “To be the acting captain now for the rest of the season, I’m hoping that the experiences I’ve had can come in handy around the boys if stuff gets hard – to make your own decisions and to fight through adversity, something Rhinos do anyway!” he expressed. One other thing the man with 125 Leeds appearances to his name wants to do through the rest of the season is to improve his form, admitting that it hasn’t been the best in 2018. “It’s been alright in patches, my form hasn’t been the most consistent… it’s all about getting time back on the pitch for me, I missed pre-season and I missed six weeks after the Melbourne match so it’s about getting games under my belt and reaching that consistency,” he explained.
Indeed, a return to form may also see a return to the England fold for Ward, a man yet to be capped but one who was initially included in the 2017 RLWC squad only to withdraw in order recover from his shoulder injury – surely international honours are inevitable in the not too distant future, something Ward is hoping for, saying “hopefully if I’ve had enough time on the field come the end of the year I’ll be in the frame for England and I can put my hand up – but that’s if they require me, of course, and if I fit into their plans.”
Looking at the emerging generation of Rhinos at this moment in time, the pensive Ward outlined his awareness that players coming through at this time are different to those of ten years ago – who were different then from two decades past. “The generation is different now, the upbringing is different to what I’ve had and to what people before me had,” Ward articulated. “Technology and social media has changed our world and these youngsters have got to work that out, they’ve got more to focus on and it can be quite tough at times. They’ve got that reality that’s been placed on them and they have to think about whether they have an image to uphold and stuff like that… it means there’s going to be different types of people, different types of characters, that are going to start coming through.” Agreeing with that notion, Get ’em Onside asked about the impact he believes older players can have on the youngsters coming through. “Once they’re in the team environment and put their phones down they can learn from others, they can learn what to cut out. It’s all too easy these days, though, for everyone to be on their phones,” although Ward shared that there is something of an unwritten rule at Leeds that players shouldn’t be glued to their phones.
It is clear from speaking to the fans’ favourite that he is aware of aspects of modern life which could affect a person’s mental health and Ward has been praised in recent times for his willingness to openly talk about his own struggle with depression as well as his Mantality website whose tagline is ‘for the millenial mind’. Only started after the aforementioned twelve month injury lay off, Ward’s availability to star in last season’s Grand Final may only have been down to his strength of character and belief, something which will only have been strengthened through dealing with his depression. “I struggled badly in 2014 personally but I just cracked on through it, lived through it really. 2015 was like my own medicine where I’d got back to playing how I knew I could play, that self-esteem really and that was great compared to how I felt in 2014,” he professed. “2016 was harder, I had an injury lay off where I was going to be out for twelve months and I had three knee operations and one shoulder op to top it off… I had four in the space of a year and I only played the last four games in 2016. The team wasn’t doing well,” acknowledging how difficult it was to see that happening whilst knowing there wasn’t anything he could do to improve on-field matters.
It was during this time that Ward, following a discussion with the Rhinos’ team doctor where he explained anxiety troubles he was having, realised there wasn’t a quick fix for his issues. Instead, he was introduced to the literary work of Tim Ferriss, especially his book ‘The 4-hour work week’ and the player himself admitted that this time was when things started to change for him. “It was the first time where I’d really started opening my mind to other stuff and the book completely did that,” he admits, sharing the quote “what we fear most is what we most need to do” as one which stuck clearest with him. “I began to wonder about what I was fearing and why I was getting anxious thoughts about.” What he discovered was that it was the worry that mental health was something he – or other people – couldn’t talk about openly. “It shouldn’t be the case that people don’t vocalise it in changing rooms or in stadiums and workplaces. It’s almost like there is a fear of coming out of the box of just being a rugby player.” It was during this time that the idea of starting Mantality blossomed in his mind, Ward explaining that “it was something to vent my drive into.” Continuing that drive is one of the biggest things to get sportsman through their matches and challenges, the need to redirect that drive when not playing was key for Ward. “Mantality is an online hub for the millenial male and it will talk about mental health like it’s a normal thing,” he declared, agreeing with Get ’em Onside’s belief that it should be looked at on-par with physical health. “I continue to try to break that down and I will continue to do so. Opening your mind and opening up are big things for people now,” he outlined, stating his belief that folk need to learn how to do this.
With regular podcasts uploaded to his Mantality website – including a recent installment featuring rugby union star Danny Cipriani – Ward’s return to playing action for Leeds in 2017 was a successful one, ending in silverware. Following his latest lay off through concussion, he will be keen to ensure his comeback against – hopefully – Wigan signals the start of an improved end to the season for the Rhinos as they aim to hold onto their spot in the top eight of Super League. Going forward, however, it is clear that Leeds have the talent coming through to be continue their recent trophy winning past. Ward will be a big part of that as a leader of a new generation coming through and, following his own struggles, his ability to triumph both personally and professionally through adversity will stand him and his team mates in good stead for the rest of 2018 and beyond.