Right time and place for Kyle Eastmond as he returns to rugby league with Leeds

Ian Laybourn, PA

Former England rugby union international Kyle Eastmond says both the time and place were right for him to make his return to rugby league.

The Oldham-born stand-off enjoyed a whirlwind start to his career, playing for St Helens in the 2009 Grand Final and helping England reach the 2009 Four Nations final, both at the age of 20.

He then spent the next nine years in the 15-man code with Bath, Wasps and Leicester and played for England in 2013 and 2014 but left the Tigers last July after reportedly refusing to take a pay cut and is now back in Super League after signing a two-year deal with Leeds Rhinos.

“It happened quite quickly,” the 31-year-old told a press conference via Zoom. “I’m over the moon really and looking forward to it.”

Eastmond says he had options to stay in the Gallagher Premiership as well as moving to France, and turned down previous offers from Super League clubs.

“There were a few occasions when I gave it some serious thought but I think now is the right time, just as it was the right time for me to go all those years ago,” he said.

“I feel I’ve achieved the goals I set out to do and now a new challenge is what I need at this time of my career.

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“It was a pretty easy decision, within a few conversations I knew this was the right place to come back to.”

Eastmond will link up once again with the Rhinos’ assistant coach Sean Long, from whom he inherited the number seven shirt at St Helens, and will also renew connections with head coach Richard Agar, who mentored him in the England academy set-up, and director of rugby Kevin Sinfield, an England team-mate from 2009.

Because he has not played rugby league for five years, only half of Eastmond’s wage will count towards the Rhinos’ salary cap in the first year, rising to 75 per cent in his second season.

Eastmond will help plug the gap created by the loss of stand-off Robert Lui, as well as full-back Jack Walker, to long-term injuries on the eve of the new season but insisted he was not going to be a stop-gap signing.

Agar explained: “We initially talked about coming and playing this season and seeing how it went, but within a day he came back to us and said ‘I’m in and I want to commit for longer’.

“That was a massive selling point for us. It would have been easier and probably more lucrative for Kyle to stay in union.”

Sinfield said: “With the injury to Rob Lui, we have been keen to boost our options in the half-back position and I’m sure Kyle will excel in our environment.

“We have been speaking over the last week and I know he had a number of options both in England and overseas to continue his rugby union career.

Sean Long file photo
Kyle Eastmond will link up with his former St Helens team-mate Sean Long, the Leeds assistant coach (PA Images/Mike Egerton)

“The fact he is coming back to league is great news for us and the Super League competition.”

Agar believes the emergency regulations introduced to Super League to help combat the coronavirus pandemic will suit Eastmond’s game, particularly the six-again rule.

“Kyle’s skill set as a rugby player is a phenomenal one and we feel he’s actually sharpened it up in rugby union,” Agar said. “I feel that could be a benefit to us.

Leeds Rhinos v Salford Red Devils – Coral Challenge Cup Final – Wembley Stadium
Leeds head coach Richard Agar says Kyle Eastmond can light up Super League (Mike Egerton/PA)

“As someone who has faced the All Blacks in Auckland, he’s never been frightened of taking a challenge on and this is a challenge.

“We think he’s got the ability to light up what is already a terrific place to play on a Friday night.

“Inevitably, there will be a period of time whilst he reacquaints himself with rugby league after a decade in union but we’re really confident that it’s a matter of time, and not if, that he becomes a major presence in the sport again.”