An experienced international? Sure. Leeds’ most naturally gifted player? Definitely. But a leader? Really?
When it came to discussions over who would lead Leeds Rhinos in 2018, there were two obvious candidates who sprang to mind.
As the most experienced member of the squad, and the sole survivor of the original wave of the Golden Generation, Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s credentials were there for all to see. Having the captaincy passed from Kevin Sinfield to Danny McGuire to Jones-Buchanan would have made sense; after a life devoted to the family, the Mafioso becomes the Don.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Stevie Ward would have represented the start of a new era in much the same way Sinfield – the man he was compared to throughout his youth career – was entrusted with the honour as a 22-year-old in 2002.
Despite the 12-year difference between Jones-Buchanan and Ward, there are obvious similarities between the two players. Aside from their mammoth work rates and thirst for combat, both players have had to come back from a number of serious injuries in the early stages of their careers. Both have overcome the significant physical and mental toll of such challenges in their own unique and inspiring ways: Jones-Buchanan with his faith and Ward with Mantality Magazine.
It was met with some surprise, then, that the duo were ignored, and Brian McDermott instead appointed Kallum Watkins as club captain. Jones-Buchanan himself acknowledged in an interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post that Watkins “was renown for being quiet in his early days”.
As it has transpired, the captaincy has brought the best out of Watkins, who has at times struggled to consistently showcase his considerable ability for Leeds. Hindsight, however, suggests this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, and he has much more in common with Jones-Buchanan and Ward than you might realise, and also has benefit of being in the prime of his career as opposed to the twilight or fledgling stages.
Plenty of hype surrounded Watkins as he broke into Leeds’ first team with the reputation as a prodigious youngster, only for his progress to be continually hampered by a number of frustrating injuries – the most severe of which came in 2010, as he required a knee reconstruction at the age of 18, while he also missed the 2011 Grand Final after an injury-plagued end to the campaign.
Ward’s battles with his mental health in recent years have been well publicised thanks to his commendable work with the aforementioned Mantality Magazine, but Watkins’ own struggles with his demons were unknown until last year.
Watkins’ wife and the mother of his two children, Sophie, revealed in a blog post that he had suffered with depression in 2015, the year which marked the pinnacle of Watkins’ career as he won the Treble with Leeds, but also the year their relationship almost broke down as he shut himself away from his family, unable to express his inner turmoil and vulnerability.
“I was going through periods where I did not want to do anything and I had no energy to do anything,” he told the Daily Telegraph earlier this year. “I was finding it hard to open up to my family. They were stepping on eggshells, trying to see whether I was all right or not.
“I could have lost everything. It hit me hard and made me realise. It was down to me being in denial and it got to the point where my missus couldn’t take it anymore.”
Eventually he was persuaded to undergo counselling. “The six-week sessions that were provided through Leeds Rhinos were amazing,” Sophie wrote. “I saw a massive change in Kallum, he was so much more proactive.
“I found him sorting out and arranging things that I had been nagging him to do for months, on his own accord. He sent me bunches of flowers to work, and really tried all he could to prove to me that he wanted to do something about the depression, and get it under control.”
It is likely this was a challenge greater than anything Watkins is likely to face on a rugby field. And he beat it. Now he is reaping the rewards.
“He was quiet, but if you give him a stage or a platform, boom – he’s on,” Jones-Buchanan has said of his new captain. “Now he’s been given that stage and that window he is very, very good. Sometimes you have to see it to believe it, but he has really surprised me.”
The stage on which Watkins flourishes most significantly is the pitch. “I am not going to be saying a lot of things just because I feel like I have to say something,” he also told the Yorkshire Evening Post, and so he has instead led by example.
In previous years, the Rhinos – never the most structured of teams in attack – have been guilty of failing to get enough quality ball out to their most dangerous strike player, but the arrival of Richie Myler at half-back has seen an improvement in that respect as the duo have formed a good understanding on the right flank.
Perhaps the biggest improvement, however, has been the fact Watkins has been visibly trying to involve himself more in games – and that is backed up by his stats.
In comparison to last season, the 27-year-old’s average carries per game have increased from 12.9 to 14.5, with his average gain from those runs increasing from 6.94 metres to 7.47 metres. As a result, he is now making 108.3 metres per game. Last year that figure stood at 89.8 metres per game.
It comes as no surprise that with Watkins receiving more of the ball, he has already scored more than half the tally of tries he managed last season, needing six more to equal the 13 he notched in 2017.
The difference in Leeds’ maturing captain could be seen in the clashes with Castleford and Wakefield earlier this season.
In the frantic, albeit unsuccessful, comeback against the Tigers – the type of match in which rugby league throws you into a hurricane and leaves you to fend for yourself while the adrenaline continues to pump for days – Leeds worked the ball to Watkins in time and space. With just Tom Briscoe to his right and three opposition defenders to beat, the centre had the confidence and verve to take on all comers and dot down in the corner, leaving Elland Road on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Two weeks later, at Wakefield, Watkins produced a stunning finish and kicked a nerveless conversion from the touchline – an area of his game he has also improved markedly in recent weeks – to ultimately secure the win for Leeds.
His talent has never been in question; few players in Super League possess the alchemy of explosive power, raw pace, Muhammad Ali footwork and slick skill which Watkins combines. But these were occasions in which the leader stepped up when his followers most needed.
After the victory at Wakefield, McDermott was asked about Watkins’ form, and delivered a telling response.
“I’m not really bothered about his form to be fair,” he said. “I’m bothered about where his head’s at and where he’s at as a captain, and he’s relishing the role. His head’s in a good place – it’s good to see.”
If the start of this season is anything to go by, then Watkins is certainly in a good place both professionally and personally. He may not have been the natural choice as captain, but he appears to be the right one.