Championship Focus: Challenge Cup final coaches talk about their career development

Amid the host of storylines that provide colour to every Challenge Cup final, there was one that wasn’t lost on ardent supporters of the sport outside Super League.

Opposing coaches Ian Watson and Richard Agar both spent almost their entire playing careers at that level and then cut their coaching teeth there, before rising to the top of Rugby League in this country.

Agar never played a top-flight game during a career at the top end of what is now the Championship with Dewsbury, Widnes and Rochdale.

Watson played 46 Super League game for Salford and Workington, but spent more time at the likes of Swinton, Rochdale, Leigh, Widnes, Oldham and Halifax.

Agar then took charge at York City Knights before quickly moving as an assistant to Hull FC, while Watson was player-coach at the Lions before being handed his chance, initially as a number two, at the Red Devils.

Both men spoke about their experiences at the lower levels, and the benefits of them, ahead of Saturday’s showpiece even.

Watson said: “I’m a big fan of the Championship.

“The guys that play at Championship have to get up early in the morning and go and work and then have to train at night, knock holes out of each other in the session, then get up the morning after, go to work, then do a weights session and maybe go back and train.

“There’s proper commitment there to be a street rugby player more than anything.

“You look at Super League and see the athletes playing the game now, and some of them won’t be as educated as some of those Championship players.

“When you’re down at the lower level you have to have a love for the game and an understanding of the game and of your position.

“I think that’s something that Richard and I did have – we wanted to play and wanted to win.

“Everyone was a competitor. In the Championship there’s no one who plays just to play rugby, or otherwise you’d just go play amateur with your mates.

“What you want to do is win, and get the extra kind of money that the Championship brings.

“But to do that, to play for as long as Richard did in the Championship you have to be really committed and work really hard.

“It’s a great place for players to cut their teeth, especially younger players like Rich does with Featherstone, but also as a coach as well.

“I was quite lucky that I was able to player-coach before I came here and you see it from both sides there as well.

“It gives you a good schooling for when you come up into Super League.

“At the same time it helps you break things down, rather than you thinking too complicated all the time – some of the Championship players don’t want to know all about the stats.”

Agar has a similar view.

He said: “One thing about coming out of the Championship and not having an illustrious blue-chip career is you probably have to work a little bit harder at the lower end of the game.

“I only ever saw that as a benefit.

“My first ever jobs were Featherstone Lions in the Conference when I was still playing, and England Students.

“When I look back on that I realise I made so many mistakes, but mistakes that the players probably didn’t know that I was making.

“The ability to communicate with a group, learn by errors, make decisions on the run, put schedules together – it’s been a 20-odd year journey for me and one I’m still learning.

“There is some advantage of having had to come through the hard work and really working your way through those times to the point where you do get an opportunity.

“I was fairly lucky that I did get that opportunity at the age of 32 at Hull FC, but that wasn’t already without having coached for probably five years before that, too.

“I do think cutting your teeth and working your way through those hard times has certainly been a really good foundation.”

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