VETERAN captain Stuart Dickens reckons Featherstone Rovers will go into their third successive Co-op Championship Grand Final as underdogs.
Rovers take on Sheffield Eagles at Warrington’s HJ Stadium on Sunday in a repeat of last year’s title decider which Dickens and his team-mates won 40-4.
Featherstone have finished top of the table for the third straight year, with Eagles repeating last season’s fourth place, but Dickens reckons there will be little between the teams this weekend.
“Finishing top and reaching the final three years in a row is a great achievement and we are looking forward to it,” said Dickens, who was a member of the Rovers team pipped by Halifax in sudden-death extra-time in 2010.
“But it’s going to be a really tough game. Sheffield are the form side in the competition at the moment and are possibly going into the game as favourites the way they are playing.
“They beat Batley convincingly, they beat Halifax by 50 points and they won at Leigh last week.”
Dickens reckons that means Sunday’s final will be much tighter than the one-sided contest of 12 months ago.
“Last year the final was a game too far for them,” he said of Sheffield. “They had a few injuries and a few suspended, but I’m sure they will have learned from it and they’ll be better for it.
“I watched their semi-final last year and at the end they celebrated like they’d won the final. I think they thought it was a great achievement to get there, but this year they will be looking to kick on.
“People say you have to lose a final to win one, which is what we did. They will be looking to do the same.”
Dickens is painfully aware that Eagles are the only Championship team Rovers have not beaten this year.
“We lost at home in a pretty high-scoring game and drew at their place,” he recalled.
“We didn’t play well, but they are the type of side that if you give them anything at all, they will take it.
“They’ve got a strong bunch of forwards, some outstanding three-quarters and probably the best kicking game in the competition from their halves.
“They don’t make many errors or give many penalties away, they turn the ball over on your line and are a really tough side to play against.”
Despite his high regard for the opposition, Dickens insisted: “We are confident that if we play well we can beat anybody.
“Our form was a bit patchy against Leigh (in the qualifying semi-final), but defensively the second half was much better than it has been recently.
“We had a good week’s training and we’ve got three sessions this week to prepare for the game.
“We’ve had a couple of weeks off since the end of the regular season and that’s been good for us. It is great to be playing every week if you are winning, but you also risk picking up injuries.
“Joe Hirst (of Sheffield) got a broken jaw last week and I really feel for him. When you play somebody, you want to play their best team.
“That’s bad luck for them, but we have had the chance to freshen people up, we’ve worked hard since the Leigh game and we’ve not got any new injuries.”
Rovers have been the best team outside Super League for three years, but Dickens believes victory this weekend would be their greatest achievement.
He said: “If we win on Sunday it’ll be our most successful season.
“We’ve reached the Northern Rail Cup final and finished top of the table.
“when you win something once it makes it harder to win it again, because you are up there to be shot at.
“But we have got experience of big games and hopefully that will stand us in good stead.”
Meanwhile, Rovers centre Sam Smeaton, stand-off Andy Kain, scrum-half Liam Finn and second-row Matty Dale have been named in the 2012 Championship All Stars team.
Full-back Quentin Laulu Togagae is Eagles’ only representative in the dream team, which also includes Batley Bulldogs wingers Gareth Potts and Alex Brown and prop Alex Walmsley.
The full team is: Quentin Laulu Togagae (Sheffield Eagles), Gareth Potts (Batley Bulldogs), Matt Gardner (Leigh Centurions), Sam Smeaton (Featherstone Rovers), Alex Brown (Batley), Andy Kain (Featherstone), Liam Finn (Featherstone), Alex Walmsley (Batley), Sean Penkywicz (Halifax), Sam Barlow (Halifax), Matty Dale (Featherstone), Craig Briscoe (Leigh), Sam Hopkins (Leigh).
●* BATLEY BULLDOGS have signed former Salford City Reds hooker/half-back Danny Whitmore from Co-op Championship One side Oldham.
●Featherstone Rovers have signed hooker Andy Ellis from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats on a two-year deal. Ellis had a spell on loan at Rovers midway through the current season.