Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Friday's Coming: Sheffield Eagles

Split personality: Waisale Sovatabua hadn’t a clue who he was playing for

Sheffield Eagles are a hard team to pin down. Like a half-remembered rumour of a mirage in the dark, everyone’s pretty sure they exist somewhere out there in the Rugby League ether, but no-one is entirelty convinced until they abruptly appear on your fixture list.

For whatever reason, Sheffield have always been considered a bit of a basket-case here at TLCRF80mins: The Shuddersfield debacle, the move out of Don Valley to play on what was basically a school field, going full-time last year only to spectacularly crash & burn and, this year, another step in their peripatetic existence as they opted to play their home games at Wakefield (much like their flirtation with Huddersfield, maybe they think that playing in locations with the word ‘Field’ in the name only feels half as bad as playing at, say, Doncaster).

From the outset, Sheffield had the air ephemerality about them

The day before the Eagles first ever league game on 2 September 1984 - when they beat Hornets 29–10 - the club's sponsor went bust and, by November the club was set to fold due to financial problems. As it was, Sheffield got drawn against Leeds in the John Player Special Trophy first round and the game delivered enough cash to see out the season.

In the decade 1988 to 1998, Sheffield threatened to take solid form. Promotion to the top flight, a Yorkshire Cup final, an 80-2 defeat by the Kangaroos on their 1994 tour, playing the inaugural game of Super League era at Paris Saint-Germain, a record attendance of 10,603 for Sheffield v Bradford Bulls.  And all of this topped by a shock challenge cup victory over Wigan. Who couldn’t be enthused by such stellar progress? Their hubris peaked when ‘Eagles plc’ became the first rugby league club to be floated on the Stock Exchange.

Like Icarus, the Eagles soared, but in similar fashion - within two years -  the Sheffield dream was a pile of steaming ash. Attendances at Don Valley stalled, the Eagles faced relegation and, with hard-faced city shareholders to answer to, the money, the goodwill and the enthusiasm leached away.

12 months after the greatest upset in Challenge Cup history, Sheffield announced that they were a busted flush

The most awful of ‘salvations’ came in the shape of a £1,000,000 Super League ‘incentive’ for Sheffield to merge with Huddersfield. The deal was: Huddersfield-Sheffield Giants would play games at two venues 30 miles apart, Sheffield’s colours would become the ‘away’ kit, shareholders of both clubs could divvy-up a million quid and Rupert Murdoch would be happy.

As Super League 5 approached, it was leaked that the newly merged club had sold just one season ticket to a Sheffield post-code. Half way through the season, Sheffield were discreetly erased from the Giants picture, removed from the badge and consigned to the dustbin of RL history.

Meanwhile, back in Sheffield, a ‘new’ Eagles club was being hatched by Mark Aston - in the right place at the right time, they stepped into the Northern Ford Premiership (remember that!) in 2000, as Bramley stepped out and into RL oblivion.

For the last 17 years it’s fair to say that the Eagles have punched above their weight in the semi-pro ranks - and that Mark Aston has been the singlemost important driving force in the club’s development over that time: switching constantly, it seems, between coaching and CEO duties. Since 2000 the Eagles have a number of grand final wins and promotions under their belt and - having steadied the ship - last year’s decision to go full time seems like a bit of an aberration.

So far this year, Sheffield have been consistently inconsistent, sitting in 8th place with three wins from nine games. Having beaten both London Broncos and TOXIIIC so far, they’ve also been whacked by Oldham, Halifax, Batley, Fev and Bradford. So who knows which Eagles side will show up on the day.

Last week, Sheffield trailed 24-6 at the break and shipped three late, late tries to lost 48-16 at Odsal. The Sheffield Star described the game as: “… a poor start, coupled with a capitulation in the final 10 minutes…” - all good there, then.

Most eyecatching names in the side are both PNG imports: former Cronulla Prop Mark Mexico (formerly of Newcastle Thunder) and Kumuls international Menzie Yere, who holds the Eagles’ all-time try-scoring record with 181 tries in 249 games. In 2013, he scored a club record 46 tries in one season.

Elsewhere in Aston’s squad, they’ve bussed-in Saints centre Jake Spedding, while Toronto loanee Reece Dean is out with what looks like a long-term shoulder injury, forcing Aston to switch former academy winger Ryan Millar into an unfamiliar full-back role.

Hornets go into the game on the back of one of the most galling defeats in recent memory. Having dominated the game for 70 minutes against the team that finished fourth last year, two poor refereeing decisions were enough to swing the game Batley’s way at the death.

Alan Kilshaw sees the short turnaround from Sunday as a positive way of not dwelling on the outcome. And if the lads respond as we know thay can, it could be another tough week for Sheffield. Let’s ‘ave it.