Leeds Rhinos exclusive: James Donaldson on Sam Burgess’ early influence, Bradford Bulls’ demise, Kevin Sinfield’s Headingley lifeline & life after league

Ross Heppenstall
Leeds Rhinos badge, James Donaldson

James Donaldson enters his sixth season with Leeds Rhinos in 2024 - Alamy

James Donaldson could have easily thrown in the towel during a rollercoaster career which has seen him suffer three ACL injuries, two administrations, two relegations and a constant fight to earn his next contract.

At Headingley on Sunday though, the Leeds Rhinos forward’s rugby league journey will be celebrated in a testimonial match against Hull KR, his former employers. 

It will serve as an apt tribute to the 32-year-old back-rower’s remarkable resilience and refusal to give up. As Donaldson looked forward to Sunday’s game this week, he could not help but look back on all the blood, sweat and tears.

The Cumbrian, a popular figure within the game, told Love Rugby League: “This is my 16th season in Super League, which is bonkers.

“Every kid who grows up playing rugby league dreams of playing in major finals at Wembley and Old Trafford, which I’ve done.

“To still be here, fit and strong, playing for the biggest club in the game and having a testimonial… it just blows my mind thinking about it.

“Am I proud of what I’ve achieved? Absolutely.

“There have been a lot of different challenges – two relegations, two administrations and so many setbacks with injuries. But I’m grateful for all the life lessons I’ve learned along the way, because they’ve made me a better person and will stay with me forever.

“I’ve got some great memories of all three of my clubs – Bradford Bulls, Hull KR and now here at Leeds. The belief I’ve had inside myself – that refusal to take no for an answer – has carried me so far in the game.

“My career has been built on proving people wrong. I’ve had coaches who didn’t want me when I first got there but loved me in the end. That’s been a massive driver for me.

“I’ve been at the bottom of the pile after injuries and had to work my way back up. I’m happy to prove myself in anything, whether that’s on or off the rugby field, and work hard for everything I’ve got.”

Leeds Rhinos exclusive: James Donaldson on Sam Burgess’ early influence

Donaldson’s story begins in his native Cumbria, where he grew up on a dairy farm near the coastal town of Whitehaven.

As a junior at vaunted amateur club Wath Brow Hornets, he was rated as one of the most precocious talents in the game.

He was offered contracts by Wigan Warriors, Leeds and Bradford, where a young Sam Burgess had just burst onto the scene.

James Donaldson, Bradford Bulls, Leeds Rhinos
James Donaldson in action for Bradford Bulls against Leeds Rhinos in 2010 – Alamy

After training with Wigan, the club he supported as a youngster, Donaldson then spent a week at Bradford and stayed with Burgess.

Donaldson remembered: “Sam was only 19 himself at the time, but he looked after me and it wasn’t long after his dad, Mark, had passed away with Motor Neurone Disease.

“I just saw the life Sam was living, how much he was enjoying it, and how much of a family club the Bulls were with the same values that I hold.

“Everyone seemed to look after each other and I thought, ‘this is the place for me’. Sam and his family remain close friends of mine, as do a lot of other people who were at Bradford at the time.”

Donaldson has ‘no regrets’ over choosing Bradford Bulls despite club’s eventual demise

Donaldson made his Super League debut for the Bulls as a 17-year-old under Steve McNamara in 2009. He went on to represent the second-tier England Knights, but was at Odsal when the former World Club champions suffered a dramatic fall from grace.

They entered administration in 2012 and were relegated from the top flight in 2014. Does Donaldson ever rue spurning the advances of Wigan and Leeds to join Bradford?

“I don’t regret any decision I’ve made in the past because they have made me the person I am today and I’ve learnt a lot of lessons along the way – a lot of tough lessons as well that will serve me well in later life,” he said.

James Donaldson, Hull KR
James Donaldson scores a try for Hull KR against Widnes Vikings in 2018 – Alamy

After the much-publicised demise of the Bulls, Donaldson moved to Hull KR, where he spent four seasons.

The Robins eventually discarded him at the end of 2018, but their loss proved Leeds’ gain, and he is now entering his sixth season at Headingley.

He helped the Rhinos to Challenge Cup glory against Salford Red Devils in 2020 and a Super League Grand Final in 2022, where they lost out only to an all-conquering St Helens side.

Kevin Sinfield’s Headingley lifeline during Donaldson’s dark days: ‘I had nothing left’

Three knee constructions and numerous other injury setbacks have severely tested Donaldson’s mental resolve.

But, having joined the Rhinos on trial ahead of the 2019 campaign before earning a full-time deal, he has become a consistent member of their pack.

His tireless work-rate and willingness to put his body on the line have made him a highly-valued figure at Headingley.

Donaldson remembered: “Kevin Sinfield was in charge at Leeds at the time and offered me a two-week trial when I had nothing left.

James Donaldson kisses the Challenge Cup trophy
James Donaldson kisses the Challenge Cup trophy after winning it with Leeds Rhinos at Wembley in 2020 – Alamy

“That was five years ago and I don’t even know where that five years has gone! I had the trial, played on Boxing Day and was on the bench for the first game of the season.

“To go on and win a Challenge Cup, play in a Grand Final, and in some major games such as when we played New Zealand – it’s crazy when you think about it.

“Coming here has been fantastic and Leeds Rhinos have done so much for me, on and off the field, so I can’t thank them enough and I think Leeds will always be home to me now.

“This is my 16th season in Super League now – I debuted for Bradford in 2009. Despite everything, I’ve always stuck at it and a lot of that is down to sheer hard work and I’m proud of that. My attitude is that I will never give in and will get the rewards.

“I wouldn’t say I’m the most talented player, but I work hard for everything I’ve got.”

How Donaldson is preparing for life after league with part-time job in Leeds city as he enters final year of Rhinos contract

Away from rugby, Donaldson met his long-term partner Georgia during his time at Bradford, and they married in 2019 before welcoming their first child, Tobias, into the world in 2021.

Their second son – Miller – was born last month, and Donaldson said: “I’ve got some great support at home with my wife and the boys, plus my family back in Cumbria.

I have lived in Leeds since I moved to Bradford Bulls as a young kid and I am really settled here. I love the place.”

Donaldson is contracted only until the end of 2024, but is relaxed about the future, having achieved a 2:1 degree in Quantity Surveying from Leeds Beckett University.

That is a long-term career option, but he already puts his qualification into practice by working one day a week as an Assistant Cost Manager at Rider Levitt Bucknall in Leeds.

The 32-year-old explained: “I’m just here [at the Rhinos] for this season as thing stand, but I’ll just see how it goes.

“I’m not putting any pressure on myself, because I’ve got an opportunity post-rugby, so I’ll just keep enjoying what I’m doing.

“On my day off from rugby, I work one day a week in Leeds at Rider Levitt Bucknall (RLB), a global independent construction, property and management consultancy.

“It’s great that they can support me because they’re a worldwide company, and it’s such a fantastic opportunity; one that not many full-time rugby players would get.”

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