John Kear does not expect Hull KR to cause Leeds too many surprises at Wembley on saturday. Peter Smith reports.
He is the king of the Challenge Cup shock.
Now coach of Batley Bulldogs, John Kear masterminded two of the competition’s greatest upsets, guiding Sheffield Eagles to victory over Wigan Warriors in 1998 and plotting Hull’s win against Leeds Rhinos a decade ago.
So with Hull KR facing the biggest challenge since Kear’s double when they take on Rhinos at Wembley on Saturday, nobody is better equipped to assess their chances.
Kear – who combines his Batley role with work as a television and radio pundit – believes the East Yorkshire team are capable of rising to the occasion, but the veteran boss is tipping Rhinos to retain the trophy they won a year ago.
“I think it is an absolutely fascinating final,” Kear said of the second successive all-Yorkshire showpiece.
“I think Hull KR are the biggest underdogs since 1998, when Sheffield beat Wigan.
“Their league position was 10th at the end of round 23 and they are playing the team that topped the league ladder.
“It is very similar to the Wigan versus Sheffield final and also Leeds against Hull.
“Leeds had hardly lost a game that year, they had dominated totally.
“Hull had not beaten Leeds in 10 games – we’d had one draw when Steve Prescott kicked a fortunate penalty, but we came up with the goods on the day.
“It can happen, as those two games indicate, but I feel there’s great experience and a steely resolve in the Rhinos to send Jamie Peacock, Paul Aiton, Kylie Leuluai and Kevin Sinfield off with a winning final.”
Peacock is due to retire at the end of the season, to join Hull KR as football manager.
Sinfield will also be playing at Wembley for the final time, before switching codes with Yorkshire Carnegie.
Leuluai – Rhinos’ most successful import – will hang up his boots in October to join the backroom staff and Aiton, whose season has been ended by a broken arm, has signed a three-year deal with Catalans Dragons, beginning next season.
Aiton is in only his second season with Rhinos, but Peacock, Sinfield and Leuluai have all been a key part of the club’s success over the past decade and Kear feels the desire to send them off on a winning note will be crucial this weekend.
“That will be a big part of it,” said Kear, who was also involved in Cup successes as a member of the backroom staff at his hometown club Castleford Tigers and Wigan.
“I know Jamie and Kevin and [coach] Brian McDermott will say it’s not a factor, but in groups it is a factor and it will give them that resolve not to under-estimate what is still a very good Hull KR team, as indicated by how they got to the final.”
Rovers’ most eye-catching Cup result was a 16-14 win over Wigan Warriors, just two weeks after being embarrassed 60-0 by the same opposition in First Utility Super League.
“That was their performance which really impressed me,” Kear reflected.
“They are a great attacking team, but they are renowned for being a bit flaky in defence.
“That night they were very, very tough and physical in defence and they managed to get over the top of Wigan.
“They will certainly be trying to take that type of game into the final.”
Kear sees Australian half-back Albert Kelly as key to Rovers’ hopes of creating an upset and winning the Cup for only the second time.
Kelly is an injury doubt, but Kear said: “I didn’t think his style of play would suit the British game, but it has done.
“He obviously loves it there and he has settled in really well.
“He is an important player for them and I fully expect him to play.
“Looking back in history, there’s an element of risk.
“Keith Senior played for Leeds against us in 2005 and that didn’t work.
“Going back to 1986 and the last time Hull KR were there, when they played Castleford, Gavin Miller played on one leg and it back-fired.
“It is a big call and they have to be very confident he can get out there and play the full 80 minutes.
“But I believe if they are to have any chance, he has got to play.”
Rovers pulled off another shock in their semi-final, beating Warrington Wolves.
That means they have eliminated two of the last three Challenge Cup winners – and have an opportunity to sink the third in the final.
Against Warrington, Rovers recovered from a poor start to lead 12-6 at half-time and 20-6 early in the second half.
Warrington fought back to trail by only two with 14 minutes remaining, but hooker Shaun Lunt’s late try sent Rovers to Wembley.
Kear said they will be encouraged by that, but will need to play even better to have any chance of beating Rhinos.
“If Hull KR are to win, they have to produce the performance of their lives,” he predicted.
“They have to use the occasion and the emotion.
“They have to go out and say ‘this might never happen again, so let’s give it everything’.”
But looking at Leeds, Kear reckons the holders will be too strong and well-organised.
“I think they will win it through their game management,” he predicted.
“There isn’t a team in Super League that’s as good at game management as Leeds.
“If it’s dry they can out-score you and if it’s wet they play field position and grind out a win.
“Against Warrington in the Super-8s they played some breathtaking attacking rugby, but against Wigan – when it was wet – their game was based on field position and possession.
“I don’t think any other team has that ability to adapt so well, it is in their DNA.
“That comes out of great experience and players who have been involved in a great number of big games.”
Not only does Kear see Rhinos coming away from Wembley with the Challenge Cup, but he also feels it could be a record-breaking campaign for the Headingley outfit.
The only thing the likes of Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai have not achieved is an all-conquering season when they win every available honour.
Kear said: “I think they will win all three, the league leaders’ shield and the Grand Final as well.
“They are already at Wembley, they are top of the league and we all know they can win Grand Finals, because they have done it so many times.
“I think it’s in the stars.
“It would be the perfect way for Peacock and Sinfield and Leuluai to finish and I think they will go out on the back of a perfect trophy season.”