Heroes of Headingley – Danny Ward’s Leeds Rhinos memories after fulfilling childhood dreams

It was the Grand Final which kickstarted more than a decade of dominance for Leeds Rhinos – and for Danny Ward it was the realisation of a boyhood dream.

The 2004 Super League decider against arch-rivals Bradford Bulls at Old Trafford marked the first championship in 32 years for the men from Headingley.

For homegrown youngster Ward, who had come through the ranks at the club he grew up supporting alongside the likes of Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Kevin Sinfield, it was a dream come true.

He was among a core of talented young players who had emerged from the Rhinos’ youth production system and established themselves in the first team, laying the platform for a truly golden era.

“The 2004 Grand Final win was an unreal moment,” Ward, a hard-nosed prop whose father David had served Leeds as captain and coach, told Rugby League Live.

“Like most of the lads, we had been Leeds fans growing up and with my dad being there, I had been at the club since I was a baby really.

“As kids, a lot of us had stood in the South Stand as Leeds supporters and not really seen much success during that period.

“Therefore we could relate to the fans and how much it meant to finally win the club’s first championship in 32 years.

“To be a part of it was fantastic and many of us had been playing together in the academy for seven or eight years, so we already had those bonds and friendships.

Danny Ward (far right) celebrates with his Leeds Rhinos team-mates after winning the 2004 Grand Final.

“It was unbelievable and to then see the success the likes of Kev, Rob and Danny go on to win all those titles was amazing really. It showed what a special bunch it was.”

Ward played all his amateur rugby league at Dewsbury Moor, his local club, and then signed for Leeds aged 15 before making his debut against Sheffield Eagles at Don Valley Stadium in 1999.

“I left school at 16 and went straight into the old apprenticeship scheme at Leeds,” said the former Great Britain international.

“My dad played his part in my career but at the same time he didn’t want to seem like a pushy parent.

“He was always busy with his own rugby commitments, so it tended to be my mum who took my everywhere as a kid and made sure I never missed a game.

“It was the same when I came to signing for Leeds. I knew the history of my old man at the club but he kind of said ‘it’s up to you’, although he was obviously very supportive of me.

“After joining Leeds, I played in the academy and trained during the day.

“There was a good bunch of us, the likes of Gaz Carvell, Kev Sinfield, and the likes of Jamie Jones-Buchanan.

“We got coached by the likes of Dean Bell and Paul Daley, great characters who got hold of us at an early age and played a massive part in our development.

“We won the Academy Grand Final a couple of times with Sinny as captain.”

Daryl Powell had blooded the likes of Burrow and McGuire but moved on at the end of the 2003 campaign and was replaced by Smith, who had earned his coaching stripes at nearby Huddersfield Giants.

“We had some great experienced players in the likes of Franny (Cummins) and Barrie Mac (McDermott), so there was a good mix of youth and experience,” remembered Ward.

“I was probably one of the older younger lads, I was 23 or 24 that year, before Tony came in and gave us the belief and the detail to turn us into a winning side.

“He did a great job with Brian Mac as his assistant and kind of pulled it all together by making us feel invincible.

“We had lost the Challenge Cup final and also in the play-offs in 2003, so we had been knocking on the door before it all came together in 2004.”

Smith and McDermott had a huge influence on Ward’s career and another highlight of his time at Leeds was the World Club Challenge victory over Canterbury Bulldogs in February 2005.

The Rhinos won 39-32 against a Canterbury side featuring a young Sonny Bill Williams in front of a huge crowd of 37,208 at Elland Road, home of Ward’s beloved Leeds United.

“A lot of the young lads were Leeds United fans, so to play the World Club Challenge there after winning the Grand Final was absolutely crazy,” said Ward.

“At the end of the 2004 season, a lot of us were together for six weeks with the Great Britain squad during the Tri-Nations.

“To then come back and play against the NRL champions at Elland Road, the home of football, was unbelievable for me.

“That first half against Canterbury was probably one of the most perfect halves of rugby I’ve ever been involved in.

“Everything just clicked and we were just on fire. Some of the performances that night were unreal, but the team we had in 2005 was even better.

“How we did not win another major trophy that season still baffles me to this day.

“Overall, there were a lot of highlights during my time at Leeds, including my debut against Sheffield. That was another dream come true.”

In January 2006, Ward was sacked by Leeds and had his contract terminated with immediate effect due to a series of breaches of club rules.

He then had spells at Castleford Tigers and Hull Kingston Rovers before being reunited with McDermott at Harlequins.

Ward said of his sacking: “It was disappointing but I made some mistakes which, as a young kid, you do sometimes make.

“It’s about finding the balance between being a professional sportsman and growing up.

“I made some mistakes and Leeds made the decision to get rid of me.

“But looking back, I learned a lot from that period of my life.

“I went to Cas for a year, had another year at Hull KR, and then settled down in London with Brian Mac.”

After retiring from playing, Ward joined the Broncos’ coaching staff and as head coach guided the club into Super League in 2018.

He recently left his position and is keen to return to the coaching ranks, in league or union, but the Rhinos will always have a special place in his heart.

Ward was reunited with his old friends when playing in a recent charity game at Featherstone Rovers for much-loved former team-mate Burrow, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2019.

“We were all such a good bunch of mates who would do anything for each other,” adds Ward.

“Playing for our great friend Rob in the recent charity game at Fev, it was great to be back amongst all the lads, the likes of Chev, Franny, Bails and Mathers.

“You might not see each other for a year or two or even longer, but then you get back together and it’s like being a young kid again with the world at your feet.

“I was always pretty close to Disko (Matt Diskin) and Franny because we had a bit of a Dewsbury bus and would travel together.

“Franny was a senior pro took us under his wing, so I always close to them and Chev too.

“We created lasting bonds through going into battle with each other for Leeds Rhinos. The club will always have a special place in my heart.”

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