Peter Smith: Neil Kelly catches eye among a gamut of top coaches in the Championship

Neil Kelly with Karl Pryce.
Neil Kelly with Karl Pryce.
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SELECTING THE Kingstone Press Championship’s coach of the year won’t be an easy task.

Hull Kingston Rovers swept to top spot on the table under former Australia Test boss Tim Sheens, playing some excellent rugby en-route.

Matt Diskin.

Matt Diskin.

But that was to be expected. Relegated last year, Rovers have remained full-time and have greater resources than their rivals.

They took their foot off the gas once the league leadership was assured and that almost cost them last week when Halifax were within seven minutes of a huge shock in the opening round of the Qualifiers.

It will be a good achievement if the Robins are promoted back to Betfred Super League for next season, but certainly not the most eye-catching feat in the second tier this season.

Halifax coach Richard Marshall, for example, has done a remarkable job in difficult circumstances. He was appointed in September 2014 and in three seasons in charge has achieved a top-four finish in the Championship twice.

Richard Marshall.

Richard Marshall.

That is impressive for a part-time team and more so considering the fact his players agreed a 10 per cent pay cut at the beginning of the season. The idea was the money would be repaid if Fax made it into the Qualifiers, which they duly did thanks to a remarkable run at the end of the campaign when they beat three of the four teams who were above them – Toulouse Olympique, Featherstone Rovers and Hull KR – in successive weeks.

The 16-8 win in France a month ago was one of the best results achieved by a team in any division – along with, perhaps, York City Knights’ recent victory over Toronto Wolfpack – this year.

Having given everything to get into the middle-eights it seemed likely Halifax would have nothing left, similar to Featherstone last year, but their battling effort against Hull KR last weekend suggested otherwise.

Another outstanding job is being done by Andrew Henderson at London Broncos. In 2015, their first season outside the top flight, Broncos finished seventh in the Championship and were embarrassed by Featherstone in the Shield final.

Last year they were runners-up to Leigh Centurions and won away to Super League side Salford Red Devils in the Qualifiers. They matched that league placing this term and gave Catalans Dragons a scare in the south of France last weekend. Whether Broncos are ready – on or off the field – for promotion to Super League is debatable, but they are making impressive progress and Henderson – a former Castleford Tigers captain – is emerging as a coach to watch for the future.

An honourable mention must go to Matt Diskin, who had an impossible task when taking over from John Kear at Batley Bulldogs. Batley over-achieved last year to finish third and haven’t been able to match that this term.

Sixth is a more accurate reflection of their resources, but still a good effort and they have improved in the second half of the year, once Diskin had time to put his ideas and systems in place.

But, all that said, the outstanding accomplishment in the Championship this year has come in the bottom half of the table, at Dewsbury Rams.

When Neil Kelly returned to the club to succeed Glenn Morrison in April, Dewsbury had lost all eight league fixtures and were heading for League One. Only Bradford Bulls’ points deduction kept them off the foot of the table. They beat Batley in Kelly’s first game, but lost the next four.

Since then they have been arguably the form team in the competition and with six games to play are seven points above the relegation zone.

Rams have won nine of their 16 league fixtures under Kelly and six from their last seven.

The 55-year-old, who coached Rams to the Northern Ford Premiership title in 2000, had been out of rugby league for seven years and it is mystifying and depressing that nobody was prepared to take a chance on someone with a good track record, including two second-tier Grand Final wins at different clubs.

Rams chairman Mark Sawyer was and it has proved an inspired choice.