Tony Smith, the new Leeds coach, paid tribute to the teenage full-back Richard Mathers after he overcame a family tragedy to help the Rhinos to a 20-12 victory over Castleford yesterday.
Mathers, who will be 20 in a month's time, decided to play in the festive challenge at Headingley 48 hours after the death of his mother, who had cancer, on Christmas Eve.
"He insisted on playing right from the start," Smith said. "He had the option to pull out but even at the end he was not going to come off. He deserves a special mention because it is a sad occasion for everyone involved."
Smith was also full of praise for the centre Chev Walker and the forward Ryan Bailey, who made their return after being released from prison. The Rhinos pair, who missed the end of last season after being jailed for violent conduct, were given a rapturous reception from a bumper 13,154 crowd while Walker, forced to wear an electronic tag as a condition of his early release 11 days ago, set up the game's second try for his winger Mark Calderwood.
"I thought Chev did very well for someone who has been out for quite some time," Smith said. "I was very encouraged by that. If you see the way he trains, he's doing well. He has powered through training and is pushing himself."
The Headingley crowd also gave a warm welcome to the new signing Marcus Bai, the Papua New Guinea international winger, but his first appearance was overshadowed by a sparkling show from England A stand-off Danny McGuire, who presented Smith with a belated Christmas gift in the shape of two crucial tries.
Leeds, despite lacking nine regulars, coasted into a 10-0 lead inside 18 minutes with tries from McGuire and Calderwood but Castleford were inspired by their acting captain Ryan Sheridan, the former Leeds and Great Britain scrum-half who struck up a fine partnership with young stand-off Jonny Hepworth, and two-try hooker Wayne Godwin, who has earned himself the number nine jersey.
The Tigers coach, Graham Steadman, said: "Wayne looked sharp. There are one or two things in his game we are hoping to improve and the early signs are promising. He will be promoted to the No 9 shirt."
Godwin's second try gave the Tigers hope of a shock win but the Leeds scrum-half, Rob Burrow, clinched victory for the home side when he gained a fortuitous bounce to score the Rhinos' fourth try 12 minutes from the end to add to his two goals.Reuse content