This article first appeared in League Express. Read it first every Monday by purchasing League Express in stores, or if you can’t wait that long, get the online edition on a Sunday evening at totalrl.com/shop
Going into 2017, Featherstone are tasked with doing something many before they failed to do – stay in the top four.
In 2016 Bradford, Halifax and Sheffield were unable to build on their previous season’s accomplishments, with London, Batley and Rovers all coming up trumps in the race to the Qualifiers.
However, Fev are now the hunted, rather than being the hunters, and that gives them a very different and more difficult predicament to contend with.
Heightened expectations mean Featherstone fans will be demanding consecutive top-four finishes this time around. However, the last time those expectations were set, Fev fell well short.
Nevertheless, Rovers are in a much stronger position to fulfil those expectations this time around. A stronger squad has been strengthened further, with a number of established Championship players joining the club.
Keal Carlile, Richard Moore and Chris Ulugia are among the key signings made by Jon Sharp ahead of a second top-four push, and he’s confident that they’ll help his side reach the Qualifiers again.
“For me, it’s making sure you build on what you’ve already achieved and strengthening.
“We need to be better equipped to handle the situations that made it tough for us last season. A bigger squad for us was key to that.
“But the competition is wide open and all teams are capable of picking the other teams off. That was shown with the way London came through, and some of the results Oldham picked up. It’s a competition where everyone is capable of beating the other, and if you’re not on the money every week, you don’t make the four.”
A sturdy defence was key to Featherstone’s success last year, emphasised in that shock 20-0 victory over Bradford in the winner-takes-all contest.
But Rovers fell short with the ball in hand too often. Narrow defeats in low-scoring games, plus the embarrassment of being nilled by Halifax, emphasised their problems in attack.
In response, Sharp has added more vigour and creativity. Centre Ulugia is difficult to defend near the line, while Moore will add brute force down the middle and Carlile will bring the spark Featherstone too often lacked. That’s before the club’s inevitable reinforcement they receive through dual-registration club Leeds.
The Challenge for Sharp now is to ensure that the added creativity doesn’t have a negative influence on their resolute defence.
“The personnel coming in are capable defenders in their own right, but if we attack a bit better, there won’t be as much pressure on our defence anyway,” said Sharp.
“This year we need a couple of key changes in personnel to just give us a bit more attacking potency. I think we need a bit more strike next year than we did last. I think the likes of Ulugia, Moore and Carlile are attacking threats in their own rights, so I think we will have that.”
2017 SQUAD: Ian Hardman, Scott Turner, James Duckworth, Luke Briscoe, Kyran Johnson, Misi Taulapapa, Chris Ulugia, Kyle Briggs, Anthony Thackeray, Matty Wildie, Sam Day, Andy Bostock, Darrell Griffin, Luke Cooper, Jamie Cording Richard Moore, John Davies, Bradley Tagg, Michael Knowles, Keal Carlile
INS: Luke Briscoe (Leeds Rhinos), Keal Carlile (Sheffield Eagles) James Duckworth (Hunslet RLFC), Michael Knowles (Sheffield Eagles), Richard Moore (Halifax), Chris Ulugia (Batley Bulldogs)
OUTS: Liam Blockley (Released) Michael Channing (London Broncos), Jack Coventry (Hunslet), Danny Craven (Loan expired) Andy Ellis (Released), Will Milner (Released) Jack Ormondroyd (Leeds Rhinos), Colton Roche (Released), Steve Snitch (Retired), Tim Spears (Released), Robbie Ward (Dewsbury)