Peter Smith's Inside RL: Pundits put to shame as fairytales come true

NONE OF the sides involved has won anything '“ or is likely to '“ but there have been three astonishing achievements in the British game this year.

Thursday, 4th August 2016, 5:15 am
John Kear

Before the season began not many pundits would have predicted that Batley Bulldogs and/or Featherstone Rovers would feature in the First Utility Qualifiers, or the middle-eights would take place without Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.

It may not have been the best season quality-wise so far, but in terms of unpredictability it is right up there and those three West Yorkshire teams – along with Leeds Rhinos, for the wrong reasons – have provided the biggest upsets.

Batley have come from a relegation battle last season to a promotion one – in theory at least – now.

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Bulldogs’ management have made it clear in the past they are happy with the level they are at and have no real top-flight ambitions, so it would be interesting to see what happens if they finished in the top-three of the Qualifiers or won the million pound match.

The RFL certainly didn’t have Batley in mind when the new format was devised, but their long run in the second tier of the game is one of rugby league’s great unheralded success stories.

Previous coaches including Gary Thornton and Karl Harrison worked wonders on a tiny budget and John Kear has surpassed that by masterminding a Grand Final appearance in 2014 and this year’s third-placed finish.

Bulldogs live within their means, but their recruitment in the off-season was first class and Kear has developed a side who play good rugby and have unshakable self-belief.

Whether they can claim any big scalps in the Qualifiers remains to be seen, but Super League sides Huddersfield Giants and Salford Red Devils certainly won’t be relishing their trip to ‘the Mount’.

Many of Batley’s players are Leeds Rhinos fans. On September 9 they will run out at Headingley on equal terms with last year’s treble winners and that has to be one of the sport’s great fairytales.

For a few years Featherstone Rovers were top dogs outside Super League. Leigh Centurions have taken over the mantle and Rovers had to be content with a place in the Championship Shield last year, which they won.

A succession of coaches have been and gone since the relative glory days under Daryl Powell, but Jon Sharp has managed to provide stability and done an excellent job in overseeing Rovers’ rise into fourth spot on the table.

That seemed unlikely even a month ago, when they were sixth.

Their final three games of the regular season were at Batley and Halifax and home to Bradford Bulls, all teams above them on the table.

Rovers needed to win all three to sneak into the four and they did just that. Now they are preparing for what is effectively a league meeting with their dual-registration partner club Leeds Rhinos in two days’ time.

That could attract a record summer-era crowd to Post Office Road, which is just what the doctor ordered after some financial problems this year.

Their three home games are against well-supported sides in Leeds, Hull KR and Leigh and the revenue from those, plus the prize money for getting this far, should ensure Rovers can be competitive again next year.

Twelve months ago Wakefield finished 11 points adrift at the bottom of Super League and only victory over Bradford in the million pound match kept them in the elite competition.

Now they are coming off the back of a Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final appearance and are already guaranteed a place in Super League next season.

Injuries to key players mean it could well be a long seven weeks for Chris Chester’s side, but that hardly matters.

Whipping boys for so much of their time in Super League, in 2016 Wakefield have become a force to be reckoned with. They still have issues to resolve off the field, particularly concerning where they will be playing in the long-term, but Chester and chairman Michael Carter have put smiles back on the faces of the club’s long-suffering fans – and that is probably this year’s biggest accomplishment.