Throughout the career of a professional rugby league player, the word ‘adversity’ tends to crop up at least once or twice.
Serious injuries, personal matters or even just a poor run of results can all fall into that bracket. For Stevie Ward, however, it’s a word that’s followed him his whole career.
At just 26 years-of-age Ward has already spent extensive periods of time on the treatment table and even in theatre to nurse injuries to his shoulder, ankle, calf, hamstring, head and knee. It was the latter, though, that arguably had the biggest impact on not just his career, but his life away from the pitch.
He missed the Rhinos’ iconic 2015 play-off campaign and the first half of 2016 after suffering knee damage in the final regular season game against Huddersfield – the same game where Ryan Hall’s famous last-minute try clinched the League Leaders’ Shield and kept the club’s treble hopes alive. The rest, as they say, is history.
But for Ward, that game was the beginning of a new chapter in his life and one that has opened several new doors for him since. The year-long layoff saw him suffer anxiety and depression for the second time in his life but also prompted a reaction. Unlike in 2014 – the first time serious injuries had an impact on his mental health – he spoke openly about what he was going through and developed the Mantality brand as a platform to raise awareness about mental well-being in young men.
It was an instant hit and Ward garnered much support and praise from those both inside and out of the rugby league circle. Initially a start-up website, Mantality has seen huge growth since it’s inception, producing podcasts and a clothing line, all themed around the same message – positivity.
View this post on Instagram
STAND FOR SOMETHING OR FALL FOR ANYTHING- A wise viktor Frankl once said that having a strong enough ‘WHY’ can help us withstand almost any how. A wise Barbara Ward taught us that we have to find something within ourselves, for our self. Develop the skills and attributes to help us gain the confidence to battle on and find the pleasures and achievements that make this life so special. But most importantly do this with strength and dignity. This is how we make our true mark on society. — @ste_ward wearing the ‘OUT OF THE BLUE’ long sleeve tee from mantalityapparel.com
“There’s some stuff that I’ve learnt with Mantality that I’ve thrown myself into and would never have learnt otherwise,” he says. “Whether it’s leadership, stuff to make sure your mental health is tiptop or to monitor your mindset.
“Some things that I’ve learnt I feel I probably bring to the team too. It’s all about that journey and what you’ve learnt as an individual, but then what can also come into the team.”
Ward broke onto the scene in 2012 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old and was tipped for stardom from an early age. Comparisons to Kevin Sinfield and calls for international selection came quickly following his debut – the infamous pink-haired loss away to St Helens – and he was even promoted to squad number 14 the following season.
Even with a rap as big as his, though, it can be intimidating walking into a dressing room as star-studded as the Rhinos’ one was at that time. Their squad was packed with stars of past, present and future, including club legends Sinfield, Jamie Peacock, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, New Zealand international Brent Webb and then up-and-coming 21-year-olds Kallum Watkins and Zak Hardaker to name but a few.
As it happened, though, one of those club legends would become not only one of Ward’s most important mentors, but also a lifelong friend. “I met Rob (Burrow) at about 16/17 years old, so it’s almost 10 years ago,” Ward recalls. “He was always the one to have a joke and a laugh with. As an 18-year-old coming into the team, he was someone that made all the nerves and anxiety of coming up and making a debut easier.”
Burrow’s diagnosis of the neurodegenerative disorder, motor neurone disease, came as a shock to everyone when it was announced in December of last year, not least those who had played and trained with him for over a decade. What’s equally staggering, though, is the response he received.
At the time of writing, the fund set up to support him and his family is well into the £300,000’s, most of which was raised within the month following his diagnosis. Current and ex-players auctioned off playing kit, while there were fundraising events set up within weeks, including a showpiece game against Bradford that coincided with Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s testimonial and saw several legends from both clubs return to the field. The list of gestures is endless, and Ward believes that response is a true testament to the man.
“It shows how much of a respected bloke Rob is and how much everyone loved him as a player and a person,” he adds. “And it shows what someone playing rugby league the way he did, defying logic with his size, can do for people.
“He’s had such a big effect on people that he’ll never ever know. He was a hero of mine growing up and watching him and he’s a hero to thousands and thousands of others. I got to be best mates with him, so I’m very grateful for that. He’s the first person you’d have a laugh with every day. The first person to talk about Ricky Gervais and The Office with.”
Those who follow any of Leeds’ players from the past 10 years or so on social media will be aware of several members’ affinity to Gervais’ hit sitcom. In 2013 Ward and Burrow even joined up with Ryan Hall to sing a rendition of David Brent’s ‘Freelove Freeway’ as part of Ward’s South Stand Music project.
You can imagine the excitement and sheer disbelief, therefore, when the man himself sent Burrow a video message in his own peculiar way, which has since gone viral.
“I messaged a few people who I thought could be in the sort of sphere of Ricky Gervais,” Ward chuckles. “I don’t know whether he got peppered with messages or if he picked up on the first one, but he did the video message and sent it back within a couple of days.
This is what happens when I try to do something for my pal @Rob7Burrow. @rickygervais’ DONE with Hollywood. He’s finished off @apple and @amazon. Then he comes for little old Leeds and our funny shaped balls…
— Stevie Ward (@Ste_Ward) January 15, 2020
“It was quite surreal. I couldn’t believe it and it was exactly what Rob wanted. It was perfect. Rob couldn’t believe it and it’s obviously raised so much more money and awareness off the back of it. We just need to do a video reply now!”
Gervais’ dry humour and underlying positive message is almost a perfect representation of the atmosphere at Headingley this season. For years it has been renowned as one of British rugby league’s most tense sporting arenas. This year, though, there’s a calmer, more humble atmosphere about the place.
Perhaps the emotional pre-season has put things into perspective somewhat. Suddenly what happens on the field doesn’t seem as important as it did this time 12 months ago and thus, the pressure on the Leeds squad feels significantly less.
It’s certainly telling on the field. Their recent win over Toronto saw the Rhinos move to the top of Super League for the first time since their treble-winning 2015 season, albeit for just over 48 hours before Wigan toppled Hull KR. They’ve scored the most points in the league so far despite now having two games in hand, averaging an impressive 36 per game, and have the competition’s second-best defence, conceding just six tries in their past four matches. It’s a stark contrast to the under-performing Leeds team we’ve seen in the past couple of years.
Arguably one of the biggest changes is the chemistry in the squad. There’s been new additions, namely ex-England scrum-half Luke Gale and former New South Wales Origin representative Matt Prior, but everyone seems to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Ward says that’s all a result of pre-season.
“More than anything, we had some real opportunities to get to know each other. It’s the start of a new journey for us as a team. We’ve got young players coming through and obviously new players who’ve been brought in. So there was a lot of time to get to know each other to prepare for what’s going to be a big year.
“Matty’s been a great signing for us. He’s got experience in one of the biggest competitions there is and he’s really settled in and is offering a lot. Luke definitely offers that direction and organisation, and he really helps us tactically as a team. He’s got that flare and presence about him among the boys.”
As well as personnel changes, Ward is in a transitional period of his own, having been named captain by head coach Richard Agar ahead of 2020, taking over from NRL-bound Trent Merrin. A leadership role isn’t something that fazes him, though, especially given who is mentoring him as a captain.
“Obviously Trent took over from Kal (Watkins) and I knew that I would probably be looking to be captain in the future,” he explains. “So it was quite unique in a way that I had time to prepare and look at what would work and the best ways for it.
“Naturally, I started taking on some extra things over the past two years where I feel like the label of captaincy would fit. I wanted to start doing that. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since being a little boy, so it was a dream come true.
“I speak with Kev (Sinfield) quite regularly. He’s another one who was one of my role models growing up, so it’s extremely helpful to have him there and to have his guidance.
“Rich told me around December time, but he also told me the news about Rob at the same time, so it was sort of like a full frontal appreciation of the responsibility. That inspires us even more get back to where we want to be.
“That was the way I got presented with the news. I guess it’s not the way you’d imagine, but it’s important for us to use it as a springboard now. We’re on for a good year and we’re happy to ride the challenges and go for the big experiences.”