Championship Focus: Can Featherstone Rovers complete their Super League mission?

HAVING claimed the Championship League Leaders’ Shield with their 16-8 win at Bradford Bulls in round 24 of 27, Featherstone Rovers would like history to repeat itself in one way – but not another!

For since the play-offs replaced the Qualifiers (aka Middle Eights) ahead of the 2019 season, the team finishing top has gone on to win the final and so promotion to Super League.

The Featherstone faithful won’t need reminding that in two of the three completed campaigns (2020 having been wiped out by Covid), it was their side who lost out in the showpiece.

Toronto Wolfpack defeated Ryan Carr’s Rovers 24-6 in Canada in 2019, while two years later, Toulouse Olympique toppled James Webster’s charges 34-12 in France.

Last year, of course, Featherstone were eliminated in the play-off semi-finals, losing 32-28 at home to Batley Bulldogs, after which Brian McDermott, who had guided Toronto to success three years earlier, vacated the hot seat.

But the last time Rovers topped the table, in 2013, which was the fifth of six seasons of Super League licensing, they suffered play-off disappointment, also in the semi-finals and also at the hands of Batley.

Remarkably, it was the fourth successive year Featherstone had claimed the second-tier League Leaders’ Shield, and in the previous three, they had made the play-off final, each time under Daryl Powell.

They were winners in 2011, seeing off Sheffield Eagles 40-4 at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington, but went down to Halifax in 2010 and Sheffield in 2012.

The 2013 campaign started with Powell at the helm and six straight wins, but in early May and after ten victories in twelve in the league, the popular coach left to replace Ian Millward at neighbours Castleford Tigers.

Rovers appointed John Bastian as his successor, but with the Warrington Wolves youth chief not able to join until December, Powell’s assistant Ryan Sheridan stepped up.

The former Leeds Rhinos halfback masterminded six wins in seven league games, but he departed at the start of May,Featherstone announced the appointment as football manager of Sean Long.

Having been on the coaching teams at Salford (then City Reds) and Wigan Warriors, the former St Helens and Great Britain star began his first stint at Rovers working alongside Danny Evans.

The duo oversaw a stirring end to the regular league season by a team directed around the pitch by Liam Finn and with prolific try-scorers in Andy Kain, Will Sharp and Greg Worthington.

Featherstone finished top by a three-point margin from Sheffield, winning 22 of 26 league matches in total – and saw off Leigh (then Centurions) 40-26 at home in their first play-off tie, a seventh straight win.

They looked set to ride that wave all the way to the final, especially when holding a comfortable 20-6 lead in the second half against Batley, but the visitors fought back and eventually won 20-21 on golden point.

It was, of course, Long who started this season as Rovers coach, only to part company with the club 21 league matches in, 19 of which had been won, with director of rugby and former York coach James Ford taking the reins.

Featherstone were eight points clear of Toulouse at that stage, and the victory at Bradford kept that margin intact with only six to play for.

The top two will clash in France on Saturday in what could turn out to be a dress rehearsal for the Grand Final.

And given that one of the reasons put forward for Long’s exit was their unconvincing performances against potential play-off rivals (Rovers’ defeats had been at home to Toulouse and at Halifax Panthers, who had earlier delivered a knockout blow in the third round of the Challenge Cup), it will be very interesting to see the outcome.