Cotton wool time for the Betfred Challenge Cup finalists, upheaval again at Warrington Wolves, and late transfer business for a host of sides in another chaotic week of rugby league.
A bold, shrewd decision or two fingers up to the competition?
Hull Kingston Rovers' squad announcement for this weekend’s Super League clash with Wigan Warriors certainly grabbed attention. A week before the Challenge Cup final the Robins will field a side made up almost entirely of academy and reserve team players, in a league competition they could still win via the playoffs, and against one of the favourites to do so.
Supporters say 'fair play, we have earned the right.' Critics claim it makes a mockery of the sport’s integrity.
Rovers’ opponents Wigan look almost guaranteed the two Super League points which will come in very handy in their battle for second place with Leigh Leopards, Hull KR’s Wembley opponents.
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- Rovers 25/1 to beat Wigan on Friday - Betfred*
Fifth-placed Rovers may not end up losing much ground, with sixth-placed Warrington hosting league leaders Catalans Dragons, and fourth meeting seventh when St Helens go to Salford Red Devils on Sunday.
Deliberately weakened teams are nothing new of course, Saints have long been an example of a side willing to shuffle the pack and give youth the chance when the first-team squad is most in need of protection. Other clubs have done it too, while Premier League giants will completely change their teams during congested points in the football season or in a ‘lesser’ Cup competition.
The latter does not apply here of course, given we are talking about the Super League and Challenge Cup, rugby league’s two big competitions. And there is a key additional nuance in that Rovers this week brought in three players on two-week loans in Luke Thomas, Isaac Shaw and Cesar Rouge, from other teams, seemingly to allow them to rest their own. These are three players who would not usually get near the first team, drafted in at short notice to provide cover for a player shortage the club appear to have been pre-empting with its own squad selection.
No rules have been broken, of course, and most teams would probably think in a similar way. But it does leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth of those who spend time championing the greatness of rugby league to those neutrals keener to poke fun at it. That said, Rovers, winners in 1980, have been starved of Wembley success, as have 1971 winners Leigh. So can you blame them? Probably not.
With current head injury protocols, clampdowns on high shots and a recent spotlight on tackling technique, every single player is a split-second, a poor decision or a bit of bad luck away this week from missing Wembley. And to Leigh and Hull KR those days don’t come around too often.
Elsewhere Warrington look to have reacted strongly to their explosive removal of Daryl Powell. Justin Holbrook was top of their list from the moment Powell departed last weekend, and despite initial reluctance, indeed indifference from the former St Helens boss to the approach, I’m told the Wolves have thrown a lot of money at Holbrook in a bid to get the deal over the line.
The club also appears to have taken this latest setback in good spirit too. Walking into the Halliwell Jones Stadium to deliver a mental fitness workshop on Tuesday evening I flippantly told reception I was there for the head coach’s job - only to be told I had a good chance of getting it. This is a club that rolls with the punches when the butt of fans’ jokes, but they also know this next appointment has to be absolutely spot on.
Credit chairman Stuart Middleton too for fronting up to the media this week and not shying away from the difficult questions to which many angry fans want answers, namely if the Wolves are preoccupied with swapping head coaches when they should instead be looking at the boardroom.
Middleton threw the full weight of his support behind CEO Karl Fitzpatrick in the face of a barrage of criticism from fans frustrated at the recruitment and other aspects of the running of the club.
Speaking of which, with this season’s transfer deadline approaching on Friday, Blake Austin‘s back in the news having sensationally left Leeds Rhinos to join rivals Castleford Tigers on loan, while he may end up at Featherstone Rovers next year should they gain promotion. I understand Rovers were actually alerted to his potential availability a couple of months ago when a disillusioned Austin reached out to Sean Long - the former Rhinos assistant, now head coach at Featherstone.
Austin has been desperate to get out of Leeds this year and now gets his wish as he links up with the relegation-threatened Tigers, but not in time to play his weekend.
Warrington have brought back Thomas Mikaele for the rest of the campaign having only released the giant prop in April to return to Australia on compassionate grounds. By his own admission Mikaele says “it’s been a weird year” and he rejoins the Wolves only three days after Powell’s sacking. I’m told his family is far more settled now, allowing the 25-year-old to head back to a club he didn’t want to leave in the first place.
Leigh have tied down highly-rated playmaker Lachlan Lam for another two years, while pulling off an opportunist bit of business to sign former Wigan centre Oliver Gildart for the rest of the season. Gildart has already agreed to join Hull KR next season and will not play in the cup final between the sides.
Hull FC’s star playmaker Jake Clifford will leave for North Queensland Cowboys at the end of the season.
This week’s tastiest ties look to be leaders Catalans at coach-less Warrington, the champions Saints at a slumping Salford and a huge tussle between Castleford Tigers and Huddersfield Giants at the bottom.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change