Former Leeds Rhino's Captain and founder of Mantality, Stevie Ward, speaks on breaking into the professional game at a young age, managing setbacks, the importance of a strong support network and founding Mantality, the mental health support network that inspires the every-day male to become a more comprehensive version of themselves.
Was it always your dream to play rugby professionally?
“I probably started playing at around the age of six and from as early as I can remember that was always the goal… I was probably about eight of nine when I seriously thought there’s a chance here.”
Stevie began playing rugby union for local side Morley, but having seen the route to professional level playing union was restricted through school level, he sought out Rugby League as his pathway to the very top where he would go on to be a multiple time league and cup winner with the Rhinos.
How were you noticed, and signed by Leeds Rhinos?
“The Rugby League set up is very much going to the amateur game and scouts go and watch it. After a bit of time at Morley until I was about 10, I went back to rugby league. In and around that you hear about scouts coming to watch the games and it’s very exciting for a young player.
“At 12 years old I joined the Leeds Rhinos scholarship, which is quite young. I can remember going in with my letter to school in year 7 saying that ‘you’re one of the 12 players on the squad sheet’ and I was buzzing. It was like all my Christmas’ come at once.”
Stevie then rose through the junior ranks at Leeds Rhinos. After an impressive first season with Rhinos’ under-18’s, Stevie made the step up to under-20’s whilst having the opportunity to train with the first team. Following a friendly against Featherstone Rovers in 2011 and his performances for the under-20’s he earned a place in Leeds Rhinos first team squad and was given his debut by Brian McDermott in 2012.
Ward, 26, is now Leeds’ longest serving player. He was a Grand Final winner in his first season and again in 2017, when he played the full 80 minutes against Castleford Tigers just eight days after suffering a dislocated shoulder, a final which Stevie describes as one of his career highlights.
What advice would you give for young athletes breaking into a professional set up?
“I had a real seamless trajectory at 18 years old, I remember picking up my A-level results and a few weeks after that I turned out at Wembley Stadium starting in the Challenge Cup Final. We lost that final unfortunately, but a few months after that we won at Old Trafford – It went exactly as I would have scripted it.
“The first bit of adversity I got was at 19 where I dislocated my shoulder and damaged all the nerves down my arm. That was a big, big moment, because that was the moment where I would have to adapt, and things went a little bit different.