FOR all that it is no shock that big-spending champions Leigh Centurions and fallen World Club winners Bradford Bulls finished in the Championship’s top four, seeing Sheffield Eagles and Halifax make the cut this weekend surprised some.
Full-time London Broncos, relegated from Super League last term, and ambitious Featherstone Rovers were the likeliest candidates, at least for those uninitiated in the vagaries of the second-tier competition.
However, both failed in their bid and, instead, it is the Yorkshire duo of third-placed Sheffield and Halifax, in fourth, who have now earned the chance to compete for a place in the elite via the Middle Eights or qualifiers – call them what you will – that start next month.
Looking at the finances alone, neither should have stood a chance of getting this far.
Bradford and London each reaped almost £790,000 from the Sky broadcast deal for 2015, while Leigh and Featherstone – last season’s top two and Championship Grand Finalists – both earned around half-a-million.
Halifax pocketed just £200,000 and Sheffield less still at £175,000.
But the Eagles, who fittingly marked the club’s 1,000th match by securing their qualifier’s place with a 38-28 win over Featherstone on Sunday, have a recent history of defying the odds.
Under Mark Aston, they became the first side to win back-to-back Championship Grand Finals in 2012 and 2013 despite generally being under-rated throughout.
They have an uncanny knack of delivering when it matters most, despite the lack of flashy investment shown at some rivals, and it is for this reason why they might just go a step further and secure promotion in the coming weeks.
Ian Swire, their chairman whose 16-year reign is only bettered for longevity by Aston’s stint with the club as player, coach and formerly chief executive, certainly does not believe returning to Super League for the first time since 1999 is out of reach.
Under the new format, Sheffield will play Super League’s bottom four teams along with those three Championship rivals in seven games to dictate who makes the elite for 2016.
Swire said: “Promotion is going to be a very tough task this season but you have to be in it to win it – and we’re in it.
“One thing for certain is that all of the pressure is on the four Super League teams (Wakefield, Salford, Widnes and probably Hull KR) along with Leigh and Bradford.
“Ourselves and Halifax are more than capable of causing the odd upset and it may only take three wins to qualify for the “million-pound game” (fourth play fifth in the final table for last promotion spot alongside the top three) and then it’s down to 80 minutes on the pitch.
“I’ve felt all season that we would beat Leigh at least once this season and we do have a tendency to beat them in the important end-of-season games.
“We’ve already beaten Bradford and Halifax so that could be the three wins to qualify for the big showdown.”
Swire, 52, has not been taken aback by Sheffield’s achievements, despite the fact they started the campaign without a home again – the Olympic Legacy Park is not completed until next year following the demolition of Don Valley in late 2013 – and have been operating out of Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium.
“It’s a great achievement but is one that we planned for at the start of the season,” he insisted, before confirming Sheffield will go full-time in 2016 regardless of which division they play in.
“We looked at the strengths and weaknesses of our competitors and considered that we had an extremely good chance of making the top four.
“We budgeted to win 17 out of our 23 league games which we considered would get us there and with one game left (at London this Sunday) we have won 16 and achieved our aim.
“We have had a very settled team for a few seasons now and have just added a little quality to the squad. That has made a big difference this season.”
The signing of hooker Keal Carlile from Hull KR in March was inspired while former Bradford and Great Britain forward Jamie Langley, although troubled with injuries at times, has brought vast experience to their ranks and ex-Halifax winger Rob Worrincy, re-signed after completing a ban for breaching RFL betting rules, has delivered 12 tries.
With Swire a chartered accountant, it should be no surprise the club has been diligent in its recruitment.
On reaching the top four, he added: “It’s a massive boost for a team like Sheffield where we operate on smaller budgets than many teams in the Championship.
“Nobody has got rich financially playing for the Eagles but they are enriched in many other ways and that loyalty and the team ethos that the coaching staff instill in them makes a big difference.”
Sheffield will play two Super League sides at ‘home’ in the qualifiers, including bottom-placed Wakefield if they can confirm third spot by avoiding defeat at Halifax on Sunday.
Eagles would like to play those in Sheffield, possibly at Bramall Lane where they faced Hull FC in a Challenge Cup tie this season.
“Playing Super League opposition can only boost our profile in Sheffield and we are extremely hopeful the RFL will assist us in the fixture scheduling,” said Swire.