Championship Focus: Hunslet getting back on track, on and off the field

FOUNDER members in 1895, All Four Cups in 1908, another Challenge Cup and another league title in the 1930s, Wembley again in 1965, re-formation in 1973, second-tier kingpins in 1999 but denied a Super League berth…

When it comes to Rugby League history and heritage, the name Hunslet is right up there.

Now there are new rumblings in South Leeds as the club whose predecessors’ much-loved Parkside ground lay within sight and sound of the Middleton Railway – the oldest continuous working line in the world – try to get back on track.

A four-figure gate and a hospitality sell-out for the recent derby clash with table-topping Dewsbury, who were defeated for the first time in the League One this season by Alan Kilshaw’s promotion chasers, not only provided a financial boost but also a sign that Hunslet’s efforts to progress are slowly but surely paying off.

In the 24 seasons of summer rugby to feature three divisions, the South Leeds Stadium-based side have been in the lowest tier for all but five of them.

They last played in the Championship in 2015, when they survived just the one campaign after going up by beating Oldham on golden point in the 2014 Championship One Grand Final under Barry Eaton.

Before that, they had spent three seasons in the second tier after, with Paul March in charge, topping the third in 2010, which repeated their title success and promotion of 1997, when David Plange was coach.

It was Plange who guided the then Hunslet Hawks to an exciting single-point Northern Ford Premiership Grand Final triumph over Dewsbury in 1999, the first of the four years for which the RFL operated with only two divisions.

However, the game’s governors ruled the South Leeds Stadium, to which the club moved in late 1995 after playing at the old Leeds Greyhound Stadium, Batley’s Mount Pleasant, Elland Road and now-defunct Bramley’s long-gone McLaren Field, was not up to Super League standard.

It was a major body blow for Hunslet, with crowds subsequently dropping from an average of around 2,000 to just 500.

Now the club is targeting a return to the Championship, preferably this year, with a bright run of form under former Rochdale coach Kilshaw, who was appointed in July 2021, cementing a play-off place.

The 16-14 win over Dewsbury was Hunslet’s twelfth in 15 league games this year ahead of the visit to Rochdale yesterday (Sunday, August 6).

And there are two more regular-season fixtures (at home to London Skolars on Sunday week, August 20, and at Workington seven days later) in which to fine-tune for the play-off, when Hunslet hope to have at least one more game on their own turf.

“Things have been going well,” said new hospitality director Mark Collin.

“We had victories over promotion rivals like Doncaster and Oldham before beating Dewsbury, and while that means we are no longer going under the radar, it’s a confidence boost ahead of what’s to come.

“And there’s a growing buzz about the club, both on match days and in the community.”

The depopulation of Hunslet amid the clearance of old housing and closure of local mines and factories was one the reasons the original club went into decline in the late sixties and defunct in 1973, after which New Hunslet emerged (the first part of the title was dropped in 1979 while Hawks was added between 1995 and 2016).

But Collin believes the club remain in the hearts of many, adding: “People might have moved away, but many of them remained in the Leeds area, and we estimate there are between 90,000 and 100,000 people within a ten-mile radius of the stadium for us to try and tap into.

“The crowd for the Dewsbury game was encouraging, as were hospitality figures, and both are areas we want to build on and improve further. 

“It’s not just about matches either, because with the help of our foundation, who do great work already, we want to further strengthen our presence in the community, and it’s a relationship that can work both ways, because we can help each other.

“Our ethos is to embrace the history and heritage of the club, not to live in the past but to use it to go in a new direction while also mirroring the spirit and togetherness that the club has been known for and which is reflected in our Friday Breakfast Club meetings.

“Following Covid and the uncertainties that came with it, the board made a conscious decision to consolidate with a view to having a concerted push for promotion this season.

“Whether it’s this year or later, we are all committed to getting this historic club back into the Championship, and we want people to jump on board, play their part and enjoy the ride.”