HALIFAX half-back Paul Handforth – who knows a few things about causing an upset – insists all the pressure is on Featherstone Rovers in tomorrow’s eagerly- anticipated Northern Rail Cup final.
The ex-Castleford Tigers star captained Batley Bulldogs to a shock 25-24 success over Widnes Vikings in the 2010 competition.
He returns to Blackpool with Halifax having switched clubs at the end of last season, following Batley coach Karl Harrison to The Shay.
Handforth’s guile and experience has helped make the West Yorkshire side a leading Championship contender where they sit second trailing leaders Featherstone by just two points.
They also produced a stunning display to stun their rivals 60-12 back in May yet, somehow, are priced 2-1 tomorrow with Rovers 4/11 odds on favourites.
“It’s great to be going back just two years after winning it with Batley,” Handforth told the Yorkshire Post.
“That was a fabulous day at Blackpool. It was all the more special because Batley had not won anything for such a long time – 86 years.
“We were such massive underdogs too so it was an amazing feeling to win the cup.
“We are in a similar situation now – Featherstone are red-hot favourites and it us who are the underdogs again.
“There’s not a lot of pressure on us to be honest.
“We’ve beaten them once this year and they’ve beaten us too more recently which knocked us off top.
“But if we can right the little things that have been wrong with our game recently it should be a really decent final.”
It is hard to comprehend such high odds given the amount of class still abundant in Halifax’s side; full-back Paul White scored a hat-trick in their win at Hunslet last week, prop Tony Tonks has made an instant impression since signing from Huddersfield Giants, captain Sean Penkywicz is as dynamic as ever and Anthony Thackeray remains a thrilling scrum-half.
With Handforth in the mix too, they realise they have the class to deliver while Harrison – the former Halifax and Great Britain prop – takes charge in a final for the third time having also lifted the trophy with Salford City Reds in 2003 as well as Batley.
No current Featherstone player has ever won a Northern Rail Cup, which is certainly not true of the Halifax squad, and this is the first time the club itself has reached the final.
“The intensity this week has really picked up in training and there’s a real buzz around the place,” added Handforth.
“You know you’re going to a final a few weeks before and you have to try forget about it until now but we’re ready.
“Halifax is a massive part of Karl’s life – he’s in the Hall of Fame here – and so it will be very special for him, and all of us, if we can go on and do it.”
A key battle will see Handforth and Thackery against the vastly-creative Rovers half-back pairing of Andy Kain and Liam Finn.
“Finny’s been fantastic for a couple of years,” said Handforth, about the scrum-half who makes his 250th career appearance and has scored in each of the last 39 Featherstone games.
“I played with him for Ireland and he’s a good friend and a great player.
“But this season Kainy has been in fantastic form too. It’s good to see him playing at stand-off – that’s his position and always has been.
“I know he was being used a sub hooker but he’s got his chance with Kyle Briggs being out and really taken it.
“I played with him in Super League at Cas’ and we were in the same Fev’ side that won the National League Two play-off final a few years back.”
Featherstone perhaps have more big match experience after winning last year’s Grand Final against Sheffield Eagles and recently facing Castleford and Wigan Warriors in the Challenge Cup.
But Handforth, 30, added: “People forget that we had a lot of new signings at the start of the season.
“We’re probably still learning things about each others’ game now but the more we play together the better we will get,” said Handforth.
“When you look at the Fev’ side, the majority of them have been together for three years now.
“That is why they have been so successful – continuity.
“We’re looking to build that here.”
Although the Halifax side is still in its embryonic stages under Harrison, there are a few survivors from last season’s Northern Rail Cup final which they lost in agonising circumstances.
Leading for the majority against Leigh, they were pegged back 16-16 when current Castleford scrum-half Jamie Ellis scored in the 75th minute with worse to come as Tom Armstrong scored the deciding try with just 42 seconds remaining.
“I watched that game and remember thinking ‘That must be hard’” recalled Handforth.
“We’d done the same the year before with Batley against Widnes and let’s just hope lightening doesn’t strike twice for Halifax.
“The supporters here are fantastic – we get more than 2000 every home game so there’ll be loads in Blackpool – and it’ll be great for them and us if we can do this.”