Academy talents earn professional deals with Rhinos

Back Row (from left to right): Leeds Rhinos Player Pathway Development Manager John Bastian, Ben Littlewood, Harrison Gilmore, Kyden Frater, Neil Tchamambe, Leeds Rhinos Under-18s Academy and Reserves Head Coach Chev Walker. Front Row (from left to right): Dylan Proud, Billy Davies, Blake Morgan

Leeds Rhinos have announced that seven members of its Academy squad have signed their first professional contracts with the club.

Following the signings of Bailey Aldridge and Jake Higgins last month, the club has continued to reward its up and coming talents and Billy Davies, Dylan Proud, Ben Littlewood, Harrison Gilmore, Kyden Frater, Blake Morgan and Neil Tchamambe are the latest to be offered contracts with the Academy.

The new cohort of players, who have contributed to the Under-18s’ unbeaten start to the year, will continue to play, in the club’s Academy and Reserves squads for the next two years.

Davies and Proud both played their junior rugby at Siddal prior to being scouted by the Rhinos. Davies played one year in the Under-16 and this season the forward has featured in every game for the Under-18s, plus he has played twice for the Reserves, including last Saturday’s win over Castleford Tigers.

Outside back Proud switched from Rugby Union to Rugby League as a junior and then played for Leeds Under-16s and made four appearances in 2021. Stepping up into the Academy this year, he has played in all eight games so far and has scored two tries.

Speaking about signing his first deal with the club he said: “I’m buzzing to be honest. I can’t quite put it into words. When I first found out it was just quality because it shows that all the hard work pays off and gets you a step closer to the first team.

“I found out when I came into training so I had two hours waiting to tell my family but they were buzzing, if not more than I was. Siddal has produced a lot of players over time, like Tom Holroyd and Levi Edwards, so it’s nice to represent them and I can’t say thank you enough for what they’ve done for me.”

Forwards Littlewood and Gilmore caught the eye of Leeds’ scouts while playing open age for Lock Lane and Stanningley last year. The pair have only been with the club for five months but have fitted in seamlessly. Littlewood has played all but one game in 2022, while Gilmore has been ever-present, and earned a call up into the Yorkshire Academy Origin squad.

Littlewood was over the moon to sign his contract and said: “I played Rugby Union first at school but then I joined Lock Lane and went on to play for Oulton as well but to be here, I’m eager to progress and learn.

“It feels great to sign my first professional deal. I’m happy to be here and the team have made me feel really welcome. Stepping up from the community game, the matches are more fast paced and it’s a lot more professional. I’ve adapted well and obviously it’s great to progress and continue doing what I’m doing.”

The final three players, despite only being in their first year at Under-18s level, have impressed under head coach Chev Walker.

Full back Frater is the only representative of Milford ARLFC in the Rhinos Academy squad and was inspired to start playing by his dad. He came through the Scholarship as a half back but in his two appearances for the Under-18s, he has scored two tries on the wing. He also played for Leeds Rhinos Foundation’s Development Academy run in partnership with Leeds City College in their College Final clash with Warrington Wolves last month.

Loose forward Morgan started playing his junior rugby for Saddleworth Rangers at the age of six and during his time at the club, he won the Under-13s Lancashire play-offs. He signed for the Rhinos in 2020 but his first year was halted due to Covid. Coming back in 2021, he played in every Under-16s game, as well as two Under-17s games which earned him a spot in the Rhinos’ Academy team for this season.

Finally, winger Tchamambe makes the next step in his Rugby League journey, which started when he was encouraged to try the sport at school by coaches from Leeds Rhinos Foundation. He joined Leeds Irish Clovers, where he played all his junior rugby, plus he also featured in the 2018 National Final for his school Corpus Christi. He has scored a try in all seven Under-18s games this season.

Leeds Rhinos Player Pathway Development Manager John Bastian credited the community clubs for the role that they played in getting the septet to this stage. He said: “I think first and foremost, the juniors will play a significant part in the growth and progress of the club, especially our junior players progressing into first grade. These players aren’t getting signed to just get numbers in, they’re earning it.

“By signing Harrison and Ben, it shows to other community players that you haven’t missed the bus. Those lads have come in here from the community game and have stepped up. It’s about how much they want to achieve within Rugby League so it’s a credit to them but certainly the opportunities are not gone at 16-years old.

“These seven players are earning it through how they are preparing, how they’re practising and ultimately how they’re performing. They’ve earned their contracts but now they’ve got to step up again in regards to improving as athletes and making sure that when they do train and play, that they’ve got a strong work ethic and their effort is good.”