Talking Rugby League: Sun rising in the east as Hull KR hit new heights

AT the start of the season, Hull KR and Leigh Leopards were ranked eleventh and tenth respectively in the betting odds to win the Grand Final.

The Robins were 50/1 and the Leopards were 40/1.

Only Wakefield Trinity, at 100/1, were at longer odds than these two clubs.

So, to see them facing each other on a Friday night in East Hull on the opening week of the play-offs tells you, without any further comment on the game itself, that they have both enjoyed remarkable seasons.

Leigh have been the outstanding story in Rugby League in 2023, having won the Challenge Cup and been a fixture in the play-off places for almost the whole season.

They were desperately unlucky in their final regular game against Wigan, as I wrote in last week’s issue, while the Robins ran up a cricket score against Wakefield to move above them in the table and secure the home tie.

Once that happened, it was always likely to be a game too far for the Leopards, particularly when their small squad was missing John Asiata, Zak Hardaker and Ricky Leutele.

Hull KR had run up 52 points against Leigh two weeks after their Wembley meeting, but this game was never going to give them such an easy win.

One thing it illustrated is the way judicious mid-season signings can play a major role in a club’s success.

One such signing, Brad Schneider, got the Robins to Wembley, while another, Jack Walker, gave an outstanding performance on Friday night.

Walker was outstanding at fullback and at last he is fulfilling the potential that he showed when he first burst onto the scene with Leeds Rhinos in 2017, when he became the youngest player to win a Grand Final, playing alongside the Robins’ assistant coach Danny McGuire, who was playing his final career game, and current team-mates Ryan Hall and Matt Parcell.

At that time he was regarded as a potential star of the future and NRL clubs were reported to be keeping him in their sights.

But then he suffered a series of agonising foot injuries that needed constant surgeries. He joined Hull FC on loan in 2022 and he was eventually released by Leeds and signed for Bradford Bulls, scoring three tries in seven games.

The Robins signed him to fill in at fullback when Ethan Ryan suffered a broken jaw, but shortly afterwards their Australian fullback Lachlan Coote, who was a fans’ favourite, announced his retirement and the door was open for Walker once more to make an impact in Super League, although he wasn’t eligible to play in the Challenge Cup Final.

I suspect that many of the Robins’ fans who were cheering him on last Friday will have pangs of regret that Walker won’t be playing for them next season, instead returning to their rivals across the western side of the city.

Walker and Hall put the Robins ahead with tries late in the first half before Sam Luckley effectively won the game soon after the interval, when he was put in by some smart dummy-half play by Schneider. Luckley is another player who has blossomed under the coaching of Willie Peters.

Inevitably there has been plenty of controversy about Peters’ absence from the four-man shortlist for Super League coach of the year.

If the Robins can win at Wigan this Saturday and reach the Grand Final, perhaps even winning it, then there won’t be any debate about who the coach of the year is. That simply demonstrates the danger of selecting candidates before the big games of the season have been completed.

I sincerely hope that Leigh will continue to compete at the highest level next season.

With five players in the Dream Team, and all those five remaining at the club next year, they have great potential for winning more trophies. And it seems that they are already planning for that with the reported pursuit of Salford’s former Man of Steel Brodie Croft.

And on the subject of Salford, I thought that their coach Paul Rowley was an excellent Sky Sports pundit on Friday night at the Hull KR game.

He was calm, thoughtful and gave some great tactical insights into the game. I hope we’ll see him in that role again.