The 21st of April 2017 was a big day for Jack Walker, Leeds Rhinos’ 18 year old full back. On his debut for the West Yorkshire giants, against Doncaster in the Challenge Cup the youngster got himself a first half hat trick and, since, he has become a regular fixture in the Rhinos squad.
It sparked the start of a sensational breakthrough year for the Leeds born full back – but there were concerns that he may not have even made it that far. When playing for his Oulton Invaders team at under-14 level, he suffered a horrific fractured skull leading to concern that he may never pick up a rugby ball again. However, Walker stuck to his dreams of making it as a professional and signed a scholarship deal with Leeds before joining the academy in 2015.
Since his debut, the head-guard-donning full back has made eleven appearances for the Rhinos and has given coach Brian McDermott serious selection dilemmas. Walker’s competition at full back, Ashton Golding, signed a new five year deal early this season which, it must have been thought, confirmed his position as first choice full back at Headingley. However, even when he has been fit, Walker has often been selected ahead of Golding, himself only 21 years old, including in the Betfred Super League Play Off semi final victory against Hull. Walker, in my opinion, is a top drawer player with huge potential. His ability under the high ball is remarkable for one of such tender years and he doesn’t seem remotely daunted by the pressure he is put under, both by chasing teams and the sheer magnitude and intensity of some of the matches he has been in. His attacking ability to chime into the line is also invaluable to the Rhinos, offering key input into several Rhinos tries this season and long may that continue.
For me, Walker has to be a shoe in for the starting shirt in Saturday’s Grand Final against local rivals Castleford Tigers. Either way, the presence of him in the 25 man squad for next season indicates that the level the Leeds Rhinos full back must reach is high, for if the performance drops even slightly the incumbent will know that there is a very, very capable young man willing and ready to step in with both Walker and Golding staking their claims for a shirt in the thirteen. It could have been very different had Walker not signed the new three year deal offered to him earlier in the year. Initially turned down, Walker reasoning that he wanted to make sure he was making the right call in committing for the next three years. There were suggestions that he was holding out for a guarantee of being a full back for his hometown team but now he has, according to Chief Executive Gary Hetherington, said that he is willing to fight for his place – and what a fight it will be.
It’s fair to say that the future is bright for the Rhinos and Walker will surely be a huge part of it.
Image from https://www.therhinos.co.uk/2017/07/19/walker-rejects-rhinos-future/