DROPPING their captain for the biggest game in the club’s recent history is hardly the best preparation for Batley Bulldogs ahead of tomorrow’s Qualifiers opener at Hull KR.
However, in standing down Keegan Hirst due to what is described as an “internal disciplinary matter”, their head coach John Kear has demonstrated just how serious he is about his squad making a good impression when it comes to this new ground of Middle Eights action.
Part-timers Batley, of course, stunned everyone but themselves by finishing third in the Championship to secure a chance to face the likes of Super League sides Leeds Rhinos, Huddersfield Giants and Rovers.
It is a shame Hirst, the 28-year-old prop who has been so influential in them getting to this point, will now miss out, but one of the reasons the West Yorkshire side has come so far is high standards.
Furthermore, The Yorkshire Post has spoken to the player who believes Kear’s punishment for the misdemeanour is fair, so there is no argument from him.
When the coach was asked if he was worried by the indiscretion, he insisted: “I’m not worried by it – not at all.
“But we decided to take a stand.
“I’d think he’d be gutted at missing out, but you’d have to ask Keegan that.
“It is because of an internal disciplinary matter and it’s one game. That’s it as far as we’re concerned.
“He’ll miss Hull KR and then be involved again for the rest of the Qualifiers.”
Batley-born Hirst is the first openly gay player in rugby league after coming out last year and has spoken of how the decision helped him find some of his best career form this season.
The former Hunslet Hawks, Featherstone Rovers and Dewsbury Rams forward is currently dating Coronation Street actor Antony Cotton, who plays Sean Tully in the ITV soap, and was photographed with him in Ibiza on Monday.
Batley will certainly miss his presence up front when they head to a Rovers side sure to be on alert having already been burned by Championship opposition when losing at home to Oldham in the Challenge Cup earlier this season.
Hull KR won all seven Qualifiers games 12 months ago to safely secure their top-flight place.
But some would argue they are now the most vulnerable of the Super League sides and this is perhaps the best opportunity for a shock to be inflicted.
But Kear argued: “I think they are all vulnerable. There’s four Super League teams in there and they will all feel that.
“As for Hull KR, they have some quality players; previewing them you see Ken Sio, Albert Kelly and Maurice Blair and they’d all fit into any Super League side. To put it in perspective, their three salaries would be in excess of all our squad’s contracted wages.
“But that does not mean we don’t go there with belief, confidence and a sense of focus that we can get a result.”
For the veteran coach, who will end his six years at Mount Pleasant when returning to Wakefield Trinity at the end of the season, the main emphasis is on producing a competitive performance.
“The big challenge for us now is to make sure we don’t put the cue on the rack, feel like we’ve had a great season and can now go on our holidays,” he continued.
“We can’t afford to do that as, if we do, we’ll get embarrassed.
“These next seven games can go one of two ways; either we thoroughly enjoy the whole experience, compete well and perform, or we get our backsides kicked every week and it will be a disappointing end to what has been a great 23 rounds before.
“I know which I’d prefer.”
Aside from Hirst’s omission, Batley will be largely unchanged to the side that secured their top-four place with a win against Swinton Lions.
Rovers, however, bring back five players to the squad that lost against Leeds Rhinos in their final Super League game.
Shaun Lunt, Chris Clarkson, Iain Thornley, James Donaldson and Mitch Allgood are all named in James Webster’s 19 but Graeme Horne (back) misses out.