HUNSLET HAWKS coach Barry Eaton is preparing to take a dramatic gamble in Sunday’s Kingstone Press Championship One Grand Final.
Eaton confirmed he is “likely” to hand a debut to former Leeds Rhinos academy and York City Knights forward Luke Hardbottle.
The 25-year-old Hunslet Parkside product learned his trade in Leeds’ youth set-up and spent the 2010 season with Hawks’ fierce rivals York before moving to Australia.
He returned to England last month, after being signed by Hawks just before August’s Championship One transfer deadline, which means he is eligible for this weekend’s Headingley Carnegie showdown with Oldham.
“It is likely he will make his debut in the Grand Final,” Eaton confirmed.
“He can play anywhere in the pack and he has been with us for over two weeks now.
“The reason we signed him prior to the deadline was he gives us an option.
“We thought when he got over here, if he hit the ground running and we had injuries he could come into contention and that’s what has happened.
“Circumstances have dictated that we are seriously considering it.
“We have lost Luke Stenchion and Liam Mackay out of the pack and that makes it likely he might get a shirt in the 17.”
Mackay has joined Stenchion on the casualty list after being hurt in last Sunday’s final eliminator at York.
Eaton said: “He has got a badly dislocated elbow. It is still loose around the ligaments, so he is ruled out.
“We will miss him, he has been great for us. He has been one of our most consistent performers, but it is an opportunity for somebody else.”
Liam Hood suffered a dead-leg when scoring a crucial try in the win five days ago, but Eaton stated he is expected to be available for Sunday.
It will be Hunslet’s first Grand Final since they beat Dewsbury Rams in the 1999 Northern Ford Premiership decider, also at Headingley.
Eaton – who played for Rams 15 years ago and coached Keighley Cougars in the 2011 Championship Grand Final – said he has been using the experience he gained as part of Leeds Rhinos’ backroom staff for this year’s Challenge Cup showpiece.
“The build-up to a final is different to a normal league game,” he admitted.
“It is a bit more intense, but the players seem to be handling it really well. I don’t think it will affect what we do on Sunday.”
GOAL-KICKING STAND-OFF Nathan Conroy faces a race against time to be fit for one of the biggest days in community club East Leeds’ history.
Easts face West Hull on Sunday (11.45am) in amateur rugby league’s National Conference Trophy final at Headingley Carnegie.
Conroy, who has been in outstanding form this season, suffered a knee injury during last weekend’s 28-20 defeat by West Hull in the Conference Premier Division and club spokesman Malcolm Waite said: “We took him off early doors and he has had physio.
“We have a training session on Saturday and our coach Peter Clarkson will have to make a decision then. Everyone at the club has their fingers crossed, but we will have to see how it goes. If he doesn’t make it we will miss his goal kicking and his kicking in general play.”
Easts will be without loose-forward Ryan Holmes – another of this year’s top performers – and hooker John Carter, who are both unavailable.
Ben Walkin has returned from holiday and could step in at loose-forward, while Luke Tomlinson, who missed last week’s game through illness, will take over at hooker.
Sunday’s game is a curtain-raiser to the Kingstone Press Championship One and Championship Grand Finals and Waite said: “It is a very big day for us.
“It’s a major occasion in the National Conference and five or six years ago we had to be re-elected to the league, so it shows how far we have come.
“We have had two successful seasons with winning promotion, but winning a Cup would be something different.”
West Hull are the reigning Conference champions and are just one win away from securing top spot in this year’s table. Waite added: “They are a very good team. They are fast and sharp and I think they are the best team in the league. We have great respect for them, but it is on the day in a Cup final and anything can happen.
“We would have preferred not to play them last week because it gave them an insight into how we have improved. It was 20-20 in the second half and that shows we don’t lie down.”