After a year away from the top flight Hull KR are back and hoping to make a big impression on Super League in 2018. It took a miracle to land them in the Championship. They led Salford Red Devils 18-10 with two minutes to play in the 2016 Million Pound Game only to be pegged back by two very late tries before Gareth O’Brien landed the golden point which kept the Red Devils up and condemned Rovers to the second tier.
If they were unfortunate to be relegated (and maybe they weren’t because despite that narrow loss to the Red Devils they had finished the 2016 regular season in 11th out of 12) they set about proving that they didn't belong in the Championship almost straight away. Rovers lost just five times in the whole of 2017, two of which came at the end of the Qualifiers to Super League opponents Catalans Dragons and Warrington Wolves when Rovers’ return to the big time was already secured. They breezed back up to Super League without the need for a second consecutive appearance in the Million Pound Game and all of the perils that brings with it.
But that was the Championship, and it is well documented how big the gap is between that competition and the Super League. What is it about Rovers this time around that will help them compete at the top level? The major addition to the squad is former Leeds Rhinos whitewash botherer Danny McGuire. The former England half has crossed the try-line a mind boggling 212 times in his career, picking up Grand Final winners medals on no less than eight occasions. That kind of experience will be extremely valuable to Rovers but at 35 years of age there has to also be a question mark about whether Rovers Football Manager Jamie Peacock’s old mate can still produce it at the very highest level.
Jordan Walne is another recruit who has Super League experience though he only managed four appearances for Salford Red Devils in 2017, while another former Salford man Tommy Lee joins after a disappointing year with St Helens. Former Saints Adam Quinlan and Mose Masoe return to Super League also, while Justin Carney scored 18 tries for Castleford in 2015 before a less productive spell with Salford. The links to the Red Devils crop up seemingly at every turn when discussing this Rovers outfit. In addition Nick Scruton, Shaun Lunt, Maurice Blair and Liam Salter all have Super League experience along with George Lawler and Chris Clarkson but there remains the nagging feeling that this is a squad which lacks that little bit of star quality needed to survive. Relying on a veteran like McGuire at this stage of his career looks a risky strategy.
Tim Sheens’ side is not helped by the loss of Danny Addy. The former Bradford Bulls man suffered a serious knee injury during the recent pre-season derby with Hull FC and is likely to miss the whole of the 2018 season as a result. It’s cruel luck for the Scottish international who played in all of his country’s group games at the recent World Cup in Australia and seemed primed for a big season with the Robins.
Rovers start with a home game against a Wakefield side which looks as strong as it has ever been in Super League and which missed out narrowly on the top four last term, before Sheens’ side travel to Leeds Rhinos in Round 2. They then host a much changed Catalans Dragons under Steve McNamara and face a Million Pound Game rematch with Salford at the AJ Bell Stadium at the end of February. March begins with a visit from last season’s high flyers Castleford Tigers before acquaintances with the Dragons are concluded at least until any possible Super 8s or Qualifiers match-ups with the return fixture in Perpignan in Round 5.
By that stage Sheens should have a good idea of how competitive his troops are going to be. Is the top eight a genuine ambition for his newly promoted side or will they be thrust into the Qualifiers for the third August in a row? Most observers probably believe that it will be the latter. As we sit here now just eight days before the season’s big kick-off Rovers’ squad looks like one of the weakest in the division. Yet thanks to the salary cap there seems to always be a team that over-achieves. Nobody expected Castleford to run away with the league last season, while fewer still would have predicted that Salford would finish in the top four at the end of the regular season. It is to the achievements of those sides that Rovers should look for inspiration and with the experienced and canny Sheens at the helm they probably have one of the few coaches who can raise a limited squad to that level.
Sheens coached the Australian test side in a six-year spell between 2009-15, winning the World Cup in 2013. His storied career has also seen him take in spells at Penrith Panthers, Canberra Raiders, North Queensland Cowboys and Wests Tigers before he arrived in England to take up a consultancy role at Salford. There’s that link again. If Rovers find themselves in relegation trouble again in 2018 it will not be down to the lack of experience of the coach.