Supporting or playing for a team like Hunslet Hawks is not an easy option.
The standard outside Super League is rising – in contrast to the elite competition – but the Kingstone Press Championship has been starved of television coverage this year after Premier Sports decided to pull the plug before the campaign began, though Sky will be broadcasting this weekend’s finals.
In Championship One, in particular, the facilities for fans and players aren’t great and the travelling this year has been brutal. Hunslet, for example, have endured two trips to both Hemel Stags and South Wales Scorpions, as well as long treks for games at Oxford, Gloucester and London Skolars. So the delight on the field and terraces at the end of last Sunday’s 32-24 win against York in the play-off final eliminator was understandable and fully justified.
Hunslet, once the major rugby league team in Leeds, have had things tough for a long time. Denied a place in Super League after winning the 1999 Northern Ford Premiership Grand Final, they have been on their knees for much of the time since, with only their 2010 Championship One-winning season to lift the gloom.
Hawks won just six Championship games last year when they were relegated, one in 2012 and four the year before that, so a campaign which has already produced 15 victories in the regular season and a memorable Challenge Cup day out at Wigan Warriors has certainly revived the spirits of a club which is owned and run by its supporters.
It may not have been the highest-quality encounter, but in terms of drama, excitement and commitment, Hawks’ semi-final clash at York – who beat them three times in the league – was as good as any game this writer has seen in 2014. Hunslet have some good players in their ranks, including old stagers Richard Moore, David March and Danny Maun, alonside genuine prospects like Jimmy Watson, Liam Hood, Luke Briscoe and James Duckworth.
Their relationship with Leeds Rhinos has been controversial – as is the dual-registration system in general – but being able to tap into the Super League club’s playing staff and, perhaps more importantly, off-field resources has certainly helped Hawks’ cause.
Public sympathy might be against Hunslet at Headingley on Sunday. Oldham are serial Grand Final losers, having been beaten at the same stage last year.
In fact, this weekend will be their sixth final at this level in the last eight years and they have lost them all so far.
Whoever wins on Sunday faces a tough year in 2015, up against the like of relegated Super League duo London Broncos and Bradford Bulls as well as current Championship big guns Leigh Centurions and Featherstone Rovers. The difference in funding will make it almost impossible for them to survive, but that’s a worry for another day.
Both clubs have been to the brink and back during the summer era and deserve to enjoy their big day.
The Championship One showpiece (4.05pm) is the middle of three games at Headingley on Sunday and all feature West Yorkshire interest.
East Leeds, a club who exemplify what the community game is all about, take on West Hull in the National Conference Trophy final at 11.45am, with Featherstone facing Leigh (7pm) in the Championship title decider. It’s a shame there is such a long gap between the first and last games, but Championship finals day rarely disappoints and this weekend should be a cracker.
FEATHERSTONE ROVERS will be appearing in their fourth Championship Grand final in five seasons at Headingley Carnegie on Sunday.
That is an amazing record, though they have tended to fall short on the big day, having lost two of the previous three.
Being underdogs is a new experience for Featherstone, who – for the first time since 2009 – failed to lift the league leaders’ shield this year.
Grand Final opponents Leigh Centurions have been the dominant force this season, losing just twice in all competitions: a league game against Doncaster and their Challenge Cup quarter-final showdown away to Leeds Rhinos. That means the pressure is on Paul Rowley’s side. To an extent Rovers got the job done by finishing in the top-two – therefore securing vital prize money – despite axing boss John Bastian just 10 games into a long-term contract.
Backer Feisal Nahaboo decided not to continue investing in the club, which ended plans for some high-profile recruitment and new coach Andy Hay, above, has had to deal with a string of long-term injuries. The weight of expectation is off Rovers, but they may have one big performance in them, which makes Sunday evening’s game an intriguing prospect.