Mark Aston and the Challenge Cup will forever be linked in Sheffield Eagles’ short history. Richard Hercock talks to the current Eagles coach ahead of their fifth-round tie with Halifax.
Sheffield Eagles players can make history tonight and finally have a response to coach Mark Aston’s Challenge Cup glory stories.
Aston was man-of-the-match when he inspired the Eagles to one of rugby league’s biggest Cup upsets when they beat Wigan at Wembley in 1998.
Since then, the club endured an ill-fated merger with Huddersfield before Aston led a reformed Eagles which is now banging on the door of Super League.
Tonight, Sheffield welcome Halifax to Don Valley Stadium knowing victory would see the club reach the quarter-final stages of the Challenge Cup for the first time since their rebirth.
Aston’s Cup tales are the subject of training ground banter with the modern-day Eagles squad, but the former scrum-half is proud of his place in the South Yorkshire club’s history.
“How can I ever get tired of talking about the Challenge Cup final win in 1998?” asked Aston, who is also the club’s chief executive. “It was one of the biggest things that ever happened in my career, and the biggest thing that happened to Sheffield Eagles. I don’t get tired of it. Do I talk about it often to the boys? They give me plenty of stick about it, pre-empting me ‘Don’t tell us, you’re going to talk about Wembley in 1998’.
“It’s just a bit of humour, we have a bit of banter. You just try to pass on the knowledge that I learned from ’98 – that if you have the belief, the will and the want, you can achieve anything. That’s what we did. Nobody expected us to beat Wigan on that day.
“The big thing for us if we can beat Halifax it will be the first time the new Sheffield Eagles have been beyond the fifth round stage. That will be a landmark on its own since the club reformed.”
Aston would like relegation and promotion restored between Super League and the Championship, and allow the Eagles the chance to get back into the sport’s top flight.
“How many sports don’t have promotion and relegation in this country? That’s what the fans want. I understand what they tried to do with the franchising, that debate can go on forever.
“But I believe promotion and relegation should always be there, for clubs that have apsirations to be the best they can be. For the fans, too.
“If we got in Super League, would it have an impact on rugby league in Sheffield? I think it would be huge.
“It would certainly start developing the crowds again, getting some of the people back that left the club after the ill-fated merger. They now probably watch Super League in different cities, but live in Sheffield.
“I believe that would happen if we could get Super League back in Sheffield, people coming back to watch us. The profile of Super League is what everyone talks about.”
One of Aston’s team-mates from that terrific Eagles team of the 90s was Daryl Powell, the newly-installed coach of Castleford Tigers.
The Sheffield coach is backing Powell to be a big success at Wheldon Road and hopes he will be pitting his nous against his former team-mate in Super League in the not-too-distant future.
“I am delighted for Daryl. He is a Cas lad, as I am, and of the jobs you would want.,Daryl would have wanted the Cas job,” added Aston.
“He thinks he can make a difference, and I think he will 100 per cent, as long as he is supported and left to do what he did at Featherstone.
“The success that he had at Rovers he can implement at Cas. He wants to encompass everything within the club.
“That’s the key. Kids can see a progression from scholarship to Academy, and ultimately to the first team to play for your home-town club. There’s a huge potential in that area, there always will be.”
Liam Higgins (calf) is a doubt for the Eagles tonight but Aston will resist the temptation to play his 18-year-old son Cory.
The teenager was handed his first-team debut in the earlier rounds but Aston believes he is best served by playing in the Academy ranks.
“He won’t play in this game. I just want to keep him under the radar, but he’s very close to the first team,” added Aston, who has recruited a bunch of South Yorkshire youngsters for the future. “There won’t be massive changes. You are looking for consistency in games like this. Halifax are a good team and Karl Harrison has done a terrific job.”
Halifax are hoping Rikki Sheriffe can shake off a calf problem which he picked up in their 56-30 Championship success over Barrow last Sunday.