IT MAY not seem much but Richard Mathers says reaching the play-offs with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats would rank as one of the greatest feats of his career.
Considering the experienced full-back won a Super League Grand Final and the World Club Challenge with Leeds Rhinos, lifted two Challenge Cups in Warrington colours and featured in the NRL, it says plenty about how difficult the task must be.
However, given Wakefield’s recent turnaround, the prospect of achieving that unlikely target is becoming increasingly real especially if they can defeat Widnes Vikings in tonight’s televised game at Belle Vue.
When James Webster took over as head coach last month, they had won just twice in their previous 10 games and were edging perilously close to the relegation mire.
Yet, they have been transformed under the Australian’s tutelage, being unbeaten in four games since having defeated champions Wigan, illustrious Leeds Rhinos and London Broncos while drawing with Hull FC.
If they can stretch that run to five games tonight and pick up another win they will be just two points adrift of Widnes in that coveted eighth spot with seven fixtures remaining.
“There is obviously no reason why we shouldn’t be aiming for the play-offs,” said Mathers.
“If we had been talking about it five or six weeks ago then everyone would have thought we were all crazy. So, if we make the play-offs it will be one of the biggest achievements of my career.
“People on the outside don’t have the perception of what is going on and think we are easybeats and certainties for relegation.
“So wins like the one against Leeds are the ones you savour and it would be remarkable if we could now start knocking off some of the big boys above us.
“It was a shambles in the off-season. We hardly had any players, other players came in late, we lost our coach… It has been the hardest eight months or so of my playing career.”
Given he was strangely ostracised from the Castleford Tigers squad by then coach Ian Millward ahead of the 2012 campaign, and forced to train on his own before securing a loan to Wakefield, that demonstrates the travails this Trinity squad have been through.
But Mathers admits Webster, the assistant promoted when Richard Agar left following the 20-12 loss at Bradford, has been transformative.
“One of the first things James Webster said when he came in was he was sick of all the doom and gloom and relegation talk about the place, of people talking down about us and of us getting dragged into a relegation dogfight,” said the 30-year-old.
“It sounds dramatic but it was an enlightened moment. His response was ‘let’s go and get some points and start chasing those big boys.’
“We were too good a side and spent too much time and hard work to lessen ourselves. It all came out in a meeting and after that we went onto the training field and really bought into it.”
In contrast, Widnes’ impressive early season form has nosedived with the club – who face Castleford in the Challenge Cup semi-finals next month – having won just once in their last seven league outings.
“I have been in a situation myself when Wembley has been on the horizon,” said Mathers.
“They (Widnes) won’t admit it, and it’s not a thing you consciously think about, it but it’s like an elephant in the room – the attraction of a big semi-final and Wembley – and you can take your eye off the ball.
“That’s good for us so we need to keep plugging away.
“It’s a short turnaround from last Friday but we have got to put the same effort in as we did against Rhinos.
“We had a lot of busted bodies before that game. I didn’t train until the day before and to put that effort in against a world class Leeds side was a win for great character.”
The re-signing of scrum-half Tim Smith from Salford Red Devils on loan, too, has been pivotal and Mathers said: “He’s not the Messiah but he certainly directs us around and we’ve a great attacking relationship.”