FOR the first time since an infamous match that ended their Super League existence more than three months ago, Hull KR will return to the field tomorrow.
Granted, it is only a friendly, although any match with their derby rivals Hull FC can hardly ever be described as such.
Nevertheless, it is also the only derby this year given the East Yorkshire club, much to their chagrin, are now a second-tier side.
For chairman Neil Hudgell, of course, it would probably have been much easier to simply walk away from it all in October after Salford Red Devils’ Gareth O’Brien kicked that golden-point extra-time drop-goal to settle the Million Pound Game and condemn stunned Rovers to relegation.
The hosts were stunned because, entering the penultimate minute of normal time, they had actually led 18-10 at Craven Park, seemingly to maintain their invaluable place among the elite. However, a truly remarkable late comeback, which still leaves Rovers fans cold, saw the ecstatic visitors somehow save their own status.
A lifelong Robins fan who has invested millions in the club, the long-serving Hudgell recollected that afternoon to The Yorkshire Post.
“I didn’t really have time to think about it,” he said, when asked what it was like when he knew Hull KR’s 10-year stay in the top flight was ended.
“I didn’t think we’d go down and, 90 seconds from the end, we weren’t.
“That probably suggests I’d become a bit complacent with a couple of things and, on reflection, I could have done a little bit better.
“But the whole response was so immediate and from so many people that I felt actually, rather than feel sorry for ourselves, let’s do something about it.
“(Former deputy Prime Minister and Hull KR fan) John Prescott put a piece in the Sunday Mirror which was really uplifting for me.
“He described me as a good leader because I actually didn’t resign and fall on my sword.
“Instead, I got behind it all and said we had to turn it around.
“To this day, I don’t think I have felt the full emotion or rawness of relegation; straight away it was all about what we had to do to get back in.
“I didn’t watch the game back, still haven’t and never will.
“It’s just like when we lost the 1986 Challenge Cup final to Cas’. I didn’t watch that back either. I don’t have to; it’s a perk of being a chairman – you can leave it to the coaches to re-run all that rubbish.
“I understand the fans being crestfallen and hurt – I’ve seen it and can sympathise – but I can’t wallow in that. My job is to try and help make sure we get out of this.”
The ‘response’ that Hudgell mentions was as emphatic as it was positive.
Hailing from east Hull himself, the successful solicitor knows exactly the DNA of people who back the club and he expected them to stand by them.
However, even Hudgell, who had led Rovers out at Wembley in the Challenge Cup final barely 12 months previously, was surprised by the sheer volume of support as they prepare for life in the Championship and trips to Oldham, Dewsbury and Rochdale.
“I’m not surprised that people have dug in and backed us,” he explained. “There’s plenty of goodwill and support and you expect that from people here in east Hull. But the level of support probably did surprise me a little; to have already sold 5,200 memberships and seen the commercial revenue we have from sponsors, it all has left us quite bullish but very grateful and humbled, too.
“It’s been just so galvanising since day one after relegation.
“Everyone was immediately into the mindset we had to get the club back to Super League as early as possible and all that goodwill has been translated into action.
“We’ve actually sold more memberships this year than we have done in the last five years in Super League and we’re now targeting a record of 6,000.
“If we reach that it would be more than at any time in Super League.
“From the season tickets sold so far, only a very small number of people have taken the voluntary discount on offer (Rovers offered a 25 per cent reduction to reflect Championship prices) and we’ve actually increased revenue by £250,000.
“Now, obviously, we’ve lost £1m Sky (Super League broadcast) money so it doesn’t mean we’re suddenly a cash-surplus club.
“We’ve still got to find another £750,000 of revenue. Some of that has come from a drop in playing budget but we feel on that side of things that we’re not too far off as competitive a squad as we had last year give or take one or two positions we need to strengthen in.
“I think we’ve got value for money compared to then when we had a half a million sat in the stands with the likes of (Albert) Kelly, (Josh) Mantellato, (Terry) Campese and (Mitch) Allgood.”
Crucially, former Australia boss Tim Sheens, the Salford director of rugby who had been announced as Rovers’ new head coach for 2017 shortly before that crucial decider, immediately confirmed he would stay on regardless in the Championship.
Equally so, a raft of key players, not least former Leeds Rhinos hooker Shaun Lunt, who was yesterday made captain, also quickly agreed to stay at the club rather than look elsewhere to secure Super League deals as was their right.
“Tim has been fantastic,” said Hudgell, about the veteran Australian, who led the Kangaroos to the 2013 World Cup and won three Grand Finals with Canberra Raiders and another at Wests Tigers.
“He’s been there two months now and what he’s brought for the club in terms of preparation, thoroughness, attention to detail and man-management is great.
“You can see how receptive they are to his methods and just his whole persona.
“I expect we’ll add some more players as we go along when the right ones are available.
“We’re not panicking. We’ve got our first pre-season game on Sunday, then Leeds and then a training camp in Tenerife while there’s a couple of conversations going on with players.”
Rovers are set to start life in the Championship against another fallen Super League side – erstwhile World Club champions Bradford Bulls.
Of course, they went bust on Tuesday and a race is now on to see if a new club can rise from the ashes in time for that opener at Craven Park on February 5.
Hudgell expects them to be re-born and, though no one knows what they will look like, he realises life will be tough in the Championship against everyone.
They will take heart, though, from Leigh Centurions who became the first Championship side to earn promotion via the Qualifiers last season, ultimately at Rovers expense.
“They learned lessons from the previous year in that they went into the Super 8s on the back of a 15-game winning run,” said Hudgell, Leigh then going on to beat three Super League sides in the Middle Eights.
“We’ve got to repeat that. It’s not going to be easy; there won’t be any underestimating from us and we have to earn victories.
“We know we’ll be there to be knocked off so everyone gets respect and we’re going to approach the Championship as if it is the Super League.
“Some of it will be down to mindset but a lot will be down to opponents who are hardened in this league and see us as one they want to pick off.”
Hudgell was at the helm when Rovers first earned elevation to the top-flight so understands, regardless of the new format, just how arduous it will be.
“I look back at 2006 and know, if we’d not won that match (National League One Grand Final v Widnes), I’d have been out and we wouldn’t have had 10 years of Super League,” he said.
“It was all down to that one game and it’s not too far from that now.
“We’ll start tomorrow. I don’t think it (the derby at Hull FC) has particularly caught the imagination.
“Last year it came at the wrong time for us and the right for them; we got pumped – badly pumped (60-20).
“We need to put on a reasonable show on Sunday and something to build on.”