THE 2019 Kingstone Press National Conference League campaign culminates on Saturday (5 October) with a double-headed Finals Day at the LD Nutrition Stadium, Post Office Road, Featherstone, plus the Division Three Promotion Play-Off Final.
Thatto Heath Crusaders and West Hull go head-to-head in the Premier Division Grand Final; that game will be preceded by the Division One Promotion Play-Off Final, in which Featherstone Lions and Stanningley meet for the right to join Pilkington Recs and York Acorn in being elevated to the top flight.
Heworth, meanwhile, will entertain Dewsbury Celtic in the bid to accompany Woolston Rovers and Hunslet Warriors in being promoted from Division Three.
Thatto coach Richard Owen, who is stepping down after the final, said: “It’s been a great year, but it’s also been tough, I’m busy at work, have a young family, and I’m coaching the Great Britain Community Lions, so I’m taking two or three months to step back.
“I’d always said I’d spend three years with Thatto and take it from there, so it feels like now is the right time to go.
“I don’t think the NCL Grand Final has ever been won from fourth position and it’s been hard to reach the final from there, but we’ve been in good form for the last few weeks.
“We were well beaten at Underbank in our last league fixture but we’d eleven regulars out on a stag do, and we got back on course when we played Underbank the following week in the play-offs.
“We were also in good form in the first half of our qualifying semi-final at Wath Brow Hornets, which is a hard place to go, and were worth our 14-0 lead at half-time.
“Hornets responded well to having a player sent off just before the break. It’s often the case that the team with a man sent off steps up a gear, and the side with a man extra switches off a bit, and I think that’s what happened at Wath Brow. They battled back to 14-12 but we hung in there, and clinched it by breaking through on their left edge.
“I think we rested on our laurels a bit, it’s human nature with an extra man.
“We’re now focusing on West Hull. They’re a good team, with a strong pack and good halves, and I’ve been friends with their coach Mark Hewitt for a while.
“He has them well-drilled, and we’ll certainly have to improve on our second-half performance at Wath Brow.
“Wests have a lot of Grand Final experience to draw on but we’re no bad side either and I think the two best teams in the competition are meeting in the decider.
“We’re certainly in a good place; our North West team won the BARLA National Cup on the same day as we beat North Wales in the Coral Challenge Cup, and we also performed well against Dewsbury Rams in the Challenge Cup.
“We had a bit of a hangover after the Challenge Cup run, though. We went off the boil a bit for a few weeks and that spell may have gone some way to costing us the Minor Premiership.
“But we’re in the Grand Final and in with a shout for the Championship. It’s like a fairy tale but I don’t believe in fairy tales, I believe in hard work.”
West Hull coach Mark Hewitt said: “We have improved this season after missing out to Hunslet Club Parkside in last year’s Grand Final.
“We are more equipped and confident with our game, and have a better understanding as a team of what we need to do.
“I would have liked to have won the Minor Premiership but we didn’t perform in our game at Siddal. We sorted ourselves out after that, went to Wath Brow and put in a strong performance to reach the Grand Final.”
He continued: “We have a good squad; we lost Danny Nicklas to Hunslet but signed such as Josh Wood from Hull Reserves and Harry Tyson-Wilson (Hull FC and York) while Matty Plummer, who has won two Grand Finals, is back on board.
“We’ll let Thatto Heath worry about the way we play; the important thing is that we turn up.”
The meeting of Featherstone and Stanningley is an intriguing clash between a team that finished the regular campaign strongly and a side that didn’t win any of its last four league games.
The Lions were only denied automatic promotion as one of the top two through rivals York Acorn’s 88-0 win over Dewsbury Moor, that result condemning Featherstone, despite a 56-12 victory at Myton, to third spot, despite having won their last four games.
Featherstone’s last defeat was the home reverse at the hands of Stanningley, who they had beaten 36-16 in west Leeds in April. The Lions went on to eclipse visitors Wigan St Patricks 30-2 in their semi-final while Stanningley prevailed 17-14 at neighbours Milford, thanks to two tries in the last seven minutes.
Lions coach Jamie Rooney said: “We’ll certainly not be underestimating Stanningley. We put a bit of a score on them at their place back in April but when they came to us at the Millpond in August they pulled off an impressive win, recovering from 12-0 down to beat us 22-18.
“I’ve been impressed, though, by how our players have reacted from missing out on automatic promotion.
“When we travelled to Myton I reckoned we’d need to score around 40 points to clinch second spot. When we finished as 56-12 winners I felt we’d done more than enough; then news came through that Acorn had beaten Dewsbury Moor 88-0 and had pipped us on points’ difference.
“I’ve got to admit that I was in shock when I passed the news to the players. But I told them that it gave us the chance to play in a final, and they responded very positively by beating Wigan St Patrick’s comfortably.
“We’re now looking forward to the final, which is reward for everyone at the club; not only the Open Age team, coaches and off-field administrators, but every other side at the Millpond, who give us great backing, and our fans, who must be the best in the National Conference League and whose support has helped us get over the line in some tight games.
“Those fans – and the players – deserve to be in the Premier Division and we’ll be doing our best to get there; we’re ready for the top flight.
“Featherstone Rovers have reached the Betfred Championship Final which will be played in the early evening on the same day. I think there will be a big screen at the ground, and the Lions and Rovers can make it a big day all round for Featherstone.”
Ashton Golding, who coaches Stanningley alongside Jordan Lilley and is currently with Featherstone Rovers before joining Huddersfield Giants next season, will not be at the game after Rovers’ semi-final triumph at Toulouse. He said: “We may not have gone into the final with the best recent record. A factor in that, though, was that we didn’t risk any 50-50 players who were carrying injuries.
“We were looking ahead to the semi-finals and I think that paid off with our victory at Milford.
“We know what Featherstone will bring to the table and our coaching team – Jordan Lilley, Martin Oxtoby, Chris Holder and Matt Nicholson and me, with Jack Bussey doing a lot of wrestle-coaching – will implement a game plan that complements our ambitions.
“Our lads are up for the challenge after having risen through the divisions in the last few seasons. The NCL team was at a low ebb when we joined but much of that was because they weren’t training.
“We knew we weren’t too far away, it was just a matter of getting the players training and buying into our vision and our dream.
“We had a meeting at which we set out a five-year plan, and our appearance in Saturday’s final is in line with that plan.
“What gave us confidence from the outset was that we could see that there were some very good Under 16s coming through. That’s what’s happened and it’s a seamless transition for them really when they step up as all our teams work to the same strategies.
“Featherstone Lions are in the way of that plan of course, and they are a formidable obstacle, but we’re quietly confident.
“We’re underdogs, given that the Lions missed out on automatic promotion by a whisker, but we’ll aim for a high set completion and we intend to ask them some questions and see if they can answer them.”
The NCL has named James Jones as the Grand Final referee. Liam Rush will take charge of the Division One decider, and Luke Bland has been appointed to the Division Three clash.
The Division One Final kicks off at 12.30pm; the Grand Final will start at 3.00pm.
Admission at Featherstone is £5.00 (£2.00 concessions).