Hunslet ready for League One return after 14-month break - veteran Dominic Brambani tips Parksiders for promotion push
The past 14 months have given one of the stalwarts of British rugby league, Dominic Brambani, a taste of what retirement will be like - and shown him he’s not ready for that just yet.
Sunday's Betfred League One opener at home to Workington Town will be Brambani and Hunslet’s first competitive game since a Challenge Cup defeat at Featherstone Rovers on March 13 last year.
While Super League and the Championship are in the third month of their season, League One’s return was delayed to reduce the number of games played behind closed doors.
Now 35, the long layoff has eaten into the twilight of Brambani’s career, but also underlined how much he loves playing rugby league.
Looking back over more than a year on the sidelines, Brambani admitted: “It has been tough.
“I am coming to the back end of my career and lockdown was going to make or break me, really.
“I’d either find out I didn’t miss it or I’d be keen to get back - and I am definitely keen to get back.
“I am so looking forward to getting back into a competitive game this weekend and getting back into a bit of a routine.
“I’ve done it for the last 15 or 16 years, every year, so it has been hard.”
Brambani made his professional debut for Castleford Tigers on April 18, 2004, as a substitute during a 42-10 Super League defeat by Wakefield Trinity Wildcats at the Jungle.
“It’s crazy,” he added.
“I see some of these young lads coming through now at Hunslet who are saying to me ‘I remember watching you when I was a kid, when you played for Castleford.’
“But I still look after myself, I do a lot of training and I feel fit enough to crack on, so I think I am just going to see how it goes this season.
“If my body is saying I can play, I am going to keep playing.”
After Tigers, Brambani had spells with Featherstone Rovers, Halifax, Sheffield Eagles (twice), Dewsbury Rams and Batley Bulldogs before landing at Hunslet last year.
“It is a great little club,” he observed.
“I get on well with Gary [Thornton, Hunslet’s coach], I have a lot of respect for him and I think the feeling is mutual.
“That’s a big thing at a club, to get on with your coach.
“All the lads are good and there’s a few young kids there who I’m enjoying bringing on and helping and giving some advice, so I am happy where I am at the minute.”
Hunslet aren't without match practice, having played two warm-up games, but pre-season was severely limited.
Though the players initially came back in December, training was quickly put on hold by the latest lockdown.
Brambani said: “I am a keen trainer anyway, I have always been into my training so I do my bits at home when I am away from rugby.
“We got through quite a bit really, Gary was putting sessions into our Whatsapp group through the lockdown period and all our results were published on there to make sure we were keeping up with our fitness.”
Though they lost 46-6 in the Cup tie at Featherstone, the Parksiders were unbeaten in League One - and top of the table - when Covid-19 brought the 2020 season to a halt.
The challenge for them this year is to pick up from where they left off and Brambani reckons a strengthened squad are capable of doing that.
He recalled: “We had a brilliant start to the season last year and it did come at a terrible time for us, we were absolutely flying.
“We have lost some players from last year, but we’ve also recruited a few decent players, we’ve been training really well and I think we’ll give it a really good crack this year.
“I think we will go under the radar a bit, which is how I prefer it. We will be underdogs, but I think we will go well.”
This weekend's game will be played at an empty South Leeds Stadium, but streamed live and free for season ticket holders on the RFL’s Our League platforms.
“It is certainly different,” Brambani said of playing behind closed doors.
“I’ve been used to playing in front of crowds all my career, then all of a sudden you turn up and there’s nobody there.
“Hopefully in a few weeks’ time we can get the crowds back and it will be like it used to be.”
Hunslet (v Workington Town): from Hartley, Ashton, Chrimes, Brown, Brambani, Andrade, Halafihi, Kidd, Hey, Boardman, Hallas, Conroy, Rowe, Coleman, Copland, Jones-Bishop, McClean, Sweeting, Jones.
Referee: Cameron Worsley (Castleford).
Kick-off: Sunday, 2pm.
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