Leeds Rhinos stars Stevie Ward and Trent Merrin have hailed the ground-breaking partnership that will see the club sport the logo of Samaritans on their jerseys in Thursday’s Super League clash with St Helens at Headingley.

A charity in the United Kingdom and Ireland dedicated to reducing feelings of isolation and disconnection that can lead to suicide, Samaritans respond to over five million calls for help each year. They expect to field more than 800 calls alone in the 80 minutes that Leeds and Saints are on the field.

The Rhinos’ primary shirt sponsors, Leeds Building Society, have committed to raising £250,000 for Samaritans over two years, in order to enhance the technology available to volunteers across the charity’s branches.

Leeds Building Society are also seeking to raise awareness of mental well-being through the partnership, which is why they have gifted their place on the centre of the Rhinos’ shirt to Samaritans for the Saints fixture.

Three-time Super League champion Ward, himself a champion of mental health awareness, told Omnisport: “These campaigns, which encourage people to speak and encourage people to be educated on mental health, are brilliant. It’s vital. You think back 10 years ago, 15 years ago, it’s completely [changed] – you wouldn’t believe this would be happening.”

As Ward’s comments suggest, rugby league has done much in recent times to improve awareness of the topic, while the 25-year-old is among a host of players to have spoken openly about challenges they have faced.

“I think it’s one in four – the people that will incur a mental health problem each year, so if you sit in the changing rooms and look to your left, look to your right, there’s a good chance there’s going to be people who have suffered before and may do in the future,” he added.

“We’re on the right tracks; there’s more support and people to talk to. I don’t think it’s [a case of] looking at mental health problems as something to get rid of. It’s something that’s going to happen, it’s built into humans and people need to look at it and improve how they handle it and deal with it.

“Making it accessible and an easier thing to talk about is the first port of call.”

After suffering from depression and anxiety amid a succession of serious injury troubles, Ward created the online magazine ‘Mantality’, which encourages millennial men to focus on their mental well-being.

Detailing the changes he has witnessed since breaking into the Rhinos’ first-team squad as a teenager in 2012, he explained: “A big difference is just how men speak to each other… and how much more approachable and accessible it is to talk about mental health, and to use it as a thing to uncover performance.

“People think about vulnerability and they think it’s a one-way street and they don’t see many gains in it, but being vulnerable leads to a lot more power. It opens you up to know yourself more and to be able to go and achieve more. It’s certainly something that needs to be talked about more and people need to keep talking and supporting that.”

Leeds skipper Merrin is another player to have devoted significant time and energy to this subject. In 2018, prior to his move to England from Penrith Panthers, he launched the #MoveOutOfYourHead campaign, encouraging young Australians to show off their best dance moves, spread positivity via social media and raise awareness of mental health issues.

“It’s a privilege and an honour, to be honest, to be able to support something so special and speak up about mental health,” said Merrin. “We’re all proud to be able to wear Samaritans on our jersey.

“The biggest thing is just breaking that stigma around mental health and treating it as a treatable sickness.”

The forward says dressing room attitudes have improved significantly since his first-grade debut for St George Illawarra Dragons a decade ago.

“In the changing rooms, when someone’s a bit down, we have the confidence to be able to sit next to them and have a chat to them, whereas when I first started, you were probably too proud to be able to talk about it, or you kept it to yourself and that’s when a lot of issues occur,” Merrin explained.

“It definitely has changed over the last few years. The approach to mental health is starting to break the stigma and there’s a lot of campaigns out there, a lot of helplines out there that are doing a great job to open it up and be able to talk about things.

“I think we’re in a great position as professional athletes. We’re in the public eye and to be able to use that to our advantage and speak up about these issues and promote such great causes is great for us.”