Qualifiers hold '˜no fear' for underdogs as big guns lie in wait
HEAD coach Jon Sharp fully realises the 'enormity' of achieving a Qualifiers place with Featherstone Rovers '“ but maintains there will be no fear once the Championship club encounter Super League opposition.
He masterminded a stunning 20-0 win over Bradford Bulls yesterday that saw the unfancied West Yorkshire outfit sneak into the second tier’s top-four at the expense of their stunned illustrious visitors.
Part-time Featherstone finished the regular campaign with four successive victories and have now earned the right to take on top-flight opposition with promotion the ultimate prize.
With this inept return, however, troubled Bradford, World Club champions just 10 years ago, have sunk to new lows.
Seen by many at the start of the campaign as nailed on for a place in the top-two, yesterday’s calamitous result saw them slope in at fifth.
Instead of fighting for a return to Super League, Bradford now have the ignominy of facing the likes of Swinton Lions, Workington and Whitehaven in the Championship Shield.
Furthermore, of less importance but significant nonetheless, they took a financial hit as well given the difference in prize money between fourth and fifth is £175,000.
There will be no financial worries at Featherstone; one of their home fixtures in the seven-game Qualifiers competition will be against current Super League champions Leeds Rhinos, who are fighting for survival having finished in the bottom four.
It was a fine day for the region’s semi-professional clubs given Batley Bulldogs’ 62-24 success at Swinton saw them secure third place – and the small matter of £500,000 – to continue their own remarkable odyssey.
John Kear’s side will venture to Headingley to face Leeds – the dates of all Super-8s fixtures are to be confirmed on Wednesday – with Huddersfield Giants, Hull KR and Salford Red Devils the other Super League sides involved, joining Leigh Centurions, London Broncos and Featherstone in the competition that decides top-flight places for 2017.
Sharp knows his side, like Kear’s Batley, will be rank-outsiders to finish in the Qualifiers top-three or even win the Million Pound Game to secure a place in the Super League for a first time.
But, on the rousing triumph over Bradford, that saw elated fans invade the Post Office Road pitch to mob players at the end, he said: “The players were magnificent. I thought we defended really, really well, put them under pressure and our forward pack dominated.
“We had that mindset that we’d have to play for 80 minutes against a full-time team that probably spends double what we spend. We did that.
“But this is really important for the club. I’m a Featherstone lad, supported them since I was a boy and saw the great teams come through as I stood at Post Office Road. I was actually born there so I know the enormity of being back to playing against Leeds and Huddersfield Giants.
“It’s something the club has always aspired for.
“We’ve achieved that but we’re not now going to go there and roll over. We have to respect the club and one another. We’ve some players who have experienced a fair amount of Super League and it will do us the world of good.
“It’s going to be a journey and the fans are coming along in numbers and enjoying it. Long may it continue.”
Kear, who leaves Batley at the end of the season to rejoin Wakefield Trinity, enjoyed similar emotions as his side, put together on a budget of around only £150,000, prepared to take on clubs with a £1.85m wage bill.
He said: “I’m absolutely delighted for the players.
“To get 31 points in a division as tough as this against full-time opposition is a credit to the hard work of everyone at the club.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it so far – but I’m going to enjoy even more these next seven rounds coming up.”
Bradford, though, are left facing a third successive season outside of Super League.
Rohan Smith, the Australian who has lost five of his opening 11 games since taking over in mid-May, insisted: “I’m building for the long-term – it wasn’t about trying to get a home run next year – and you saw with Featherstone the benefits of being together for a long period of time.
“We have to come back with some strong performances in the Championship Shield. It isn’t quite the same carrot as playing Super League sides, but it’s about finding out what you’re about as a person – a test of character.”