FOR everyone at Keighley Cougars, the year 2015 will be one they will not ever forget.
They hope to take a sizeable step towards their main aim of promotion tomorrow when they host North Wales Crusaders in their League One play-off semi-final.
It is a second, and last, stab at doing so after missing out on going up automatically last Sunday, having fallen 31-20 in their showdown at leaders Oldham.
However, after the tragic death of Cougars player Danny Jones, aged just 29 when suffering a cardiac arrest during their game at London Skolars in May, it is a season that will linger for a long time to come for all concerned at Keighley come what may.
Brendan Rawlins, the Australian forward who has been with the West Yorkshire ever since moving to the UK in 2007, admits the memory drives them on.
“It has been heart-breaking,” he tells The Yorkshire Post, describing what it has been like playing on without their charismatic half-back.
“There’s always something that makes you think of him.
“I only have to look through my phone and there’s some memories there.
“I’ve been on a few stag dos and I’m close to Jonesy’s close friends, too, and we’re still forever talking about his jokes. That will never change.
“It was an emotional day for many different reasons last Sunday.
“I think a few of our bigger lads could only manage 18 to 20 minutes when they’d normally do a 30 to 40 stint.
“The emotion and things like that did get to us a bit and it let us down at the back end.”
Keighley, relegated last season, won 18 of their 22 league games to finish just behind two points behind Oldham but Rawlins is aware of just how important gaining an immediate return to the Championship is for the club’s long-term security.
“It’s the be all and end all, really,” he said, after a season of playing the likes of embryonic clubs Coventry, Hemel and Oxford.
“The crowds and things like that in League One don’t cut it.
“Earning promotion is crucial for Keighley Cougars.
“I remember a couple of years ago, though, when we got beaten in the first round of play-offs and and had to do it the hard way and we did. A few lads have been there before so know what it’s all about.
“North Wales are a good team but, by all accounts, they have a few key players missing so, hopefully, we’ll get them when they’re wounded.
“We’re confident we can get the win.
“Promotion has always been our goal. We’ve had setbacks along the way and not just with what happened to Jonesy. We’ve had key players being injured in the warm-ups before a game four or five times this season and we’re sort of getting used to that.”
For Rawlins, the 29-year-old from Townsville in Queensland who calls himself a ‘Yorkshire Pom’, Lawkholme Lane has become home.
“This is my ninth season now,” he said, having joined from Sydney club Balmain Tigers.
“I definitely didn’t think I’d be here that long.
“I came over thinking it’d be a year. Then a year turned into two and two turned into three – and now I’m up to nine!
“I’ve had a little girl with the missus here and, hopefully, I’ll be getting a testimonial next season, too. I’ve loved it.”
Keighley have, though, found North Wales difficult opponents this campaign.
They only won 23-22 when they met at Cougar Park in April, Jones poignantly scoring the match-winning drop goal in his last game before that fateful day in London, and they lost 34-10 in Wrexham in June.
If Keighley do prosper this time, however, they will play the victors of tomorrow’s other semi-final, featuring York City Knights at Swinton Lions, for a place in the Championship in 2016.
“We’d definitely be confident of going on and doing it especially as the final is at Widnes,” added Rawlins.
“Some of our quick lads will really fancy playing on that artificial pitch.
“But, to be fair, if we play like we can, we know we’re good enough to beat anyone.
“First up is North Wales on Sunday, a game we’re looking forward to.”