Stevie Ward, the new Leeds Rhinos number 13, the heir apparent to the jersey left behind by Sir Kevin Sinfield. If anyone could fill that jersey and do it proud then Stevie is the man, a sure candidate for future Leeds Rhinos captain. Ward is a warrior, he adds power and grit to the Rhinos line, when he players the players around him immediately play better. He is one of the special breed, that comes along once in a generation. Stevie is only 22 and has already made 82 appearances for the Rhinos, a figure that would be much higher but for his unfortunate luck with injuries.
Ward made his debut against St Helens in 2012, having being compared to Kevin Sinfield at junior level big things were expected of Stevie. This amongst other things led to him receiving a 5 year deal to keep him at the Rhinos. The highlight of 2012 had to be his appearance in the Grand Final win against Warrington in which Stevie produced a very good defensive performance.
2013 Stevie again made an impact on the first team playing most of his games in the second row, it was a season that was blighted with injury and stopped the clear progress he was making.
2014- present, Stevie was a firm favourite with the fans and was showing not only did he have potential but that he was going to live up to all the hype. Despite his slight figure Stevie is one of the hardest runners and best yard makers in the Rhinos outfit. During the 2014 season he was part of the history making Rhinos side that FINALLY won the Challenge Cup defeating Castleford and bringing the trophy to Headingley for the first time since 1999. 2015 was the golden year for all Rhinos fans, the treble winning season: Challenge Cup, League Leaders and The Grand Final! Again Ward featured heavily, mixing defensive commitment with, hard yards in attack and the ability to score crucial tries. BUT, injury struck again, in the critical game against the Giants in which the Rhinos would clinch the league leaders shield, Ward was injured and would miss the Grand Final. A devestating blow not only for the player but the fans too.
This is the real purpose of the article, Stevie is phenomenal on the pitch, that fact is well known by all and not just those in Blue and Amber. What wasn’t known before this season as universally is the character that Stevie is off the pitch. The whole of 2016 Stevie has been out injured, the road to recovery is a lonely one and one that can make or break players. Someone so young could have easily folded and cursed their rotten luck. Not super Stevie, that was never an option, instead he has filled that time not only recovered physically but mentally too.
Stevie has founded a magazine called “Mantality” this magazine uncovers the brutal honesty of not only the sport but of the men who fill it too. His first article was a moving account of as he said the “biggest transitional period in his life.” As Rhinos fans we were all geared for the win all or lose all game against the Giants, our whole day was geared toward that moment… Stevie was instead facing something that I can personally attest is one of the most tragic events any person can go through… Burying his Nanna. Now this for most people would mean locking yourself away, instead Stevie came out and played for the Rhinos, using the memory of his Nan to have the game of his life. Then disaster struck, a complete rupture of his knee. Heartbreak. As we were wildly celebrating Hally winning the League Leaders shield, Stevie lay alone on a treatment table. In his first article he opened up about: anxiety, depression and mental health in general. This is something that is truly groundbreaking, sportsmen and women often like to give the persona they are super human. BUT to me someone like Stevie showing they are human and they face the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us is truly inspirational. It allows us to see behind the jersey, behind the Leeds Rhinos player and see the man. Mental health is something many sports people and men in particular avoid talking about. Gary Speed and the tragedy of his death brought light onto the issue but in the end it changed nothing. More people like Stevie are needed, he openly talked about the rock bottom feeling of depression, mourning and anxiety and not knowing whether he would come out of the otherside the same as he had entered it. The answer is no, he didn’t, he came out as a role model, an inspiration and a stronger person, not only on the pitch but now off it too. Someone everyone who has ever felt down or suffered any form of mental illness can thank for bringing these issues to the attention of the wider world. Ward is using his magazine to break the stigma of talking about mental health issues and without a doubt this will help so many younger people to talk when they need help. Using his Nanna as inspiration, Stevie is on his way back, we all look forward to seeing him in Blue and Amber again in that famous number 13 jersey.
But I personally will look at him a little differently, I’ll see him as someone I respect beyond the game, a real life warrior, an honest gentleman looking to help others through the trials he himself has faced and openly discussed.
The Wards of the world as special people, not just special athletes and we should treasure them. Stevie Ward Rhinos number 13 but so much more!