Just 12 months after finishing bottom of Super League, the Robins will reach a maiden Grand Final if they defeat League Leaders’ Shield winners Catalans Dragons in Perpignan this evening.
Their progress in reaching this point is already remarkable; most of the East Yorkshire club’s other big games in recent memory have centred on trying to avoid relegation – the Million Pound Game defeat against Salford Red Devils in 2016 – or the following year’s Qualifiers campaign to rise back out of the Championship.
Granted, they did reach the Challenge Cup final in 2015, their only appearance in that showpiece for almost 30 years, but suffered a humiliating 50-0 record loss against Leeds Rhinos.
All of that came before Australian Smith’s intervention in June 2019, the highly-respected former Leeds and Great Britain coach tasked with dragging them out of the mire again.
His rebuild, involving the development of some talented local Academy products, sprinkling of astute signings and club culture improvements which are hallmarks of the 54 year-old wherever he reigns, has been impressive.
Friday’s 19-0 play-off win at Warrington Wolves to set up tonight’s contest in France was simply further evidence of that.
Asked how important this ongoing experience has been for them – win or lose against Catalans – Smith said: “Enormous.
“I keep saying it: we’ve a great bunch with some great leaders.
“They’ve tried hard right from the word go and challenged themselves, improved – individually and collectively – and it’s been great development for us as a team, as a club and as individuals.
“I really enjoy working with them. Last week was right up there for me in terms of one of those performances that you don’t see often. It’d be nice to surpass that. If we do, we might give ourselves a chance.
“We’ll have to go up another level – undoubtedly – and have a similar type of commitment to our defence and tryline. We will get different challenges from Catalans and we certainly need to be better with the ball. Come what may, it’s really been a pleasure working with these guys.”
Hull KR have lost all three encounters with Catalans this term and the French club are clear favourites although it is still a surprise some bookmakers have Smith’s side at odds as long as 3-1 to reach Old Trafford.
When you look at those three meetings there has been so little between the sides: the Robins lost 29-28 in Golden Point extra-time at Headingley on the opening day of the season, 32-30 on their last trip to Stade Gilbert Brutus in July (having led for much of the game) and then fell just 23-16 the following week at Craven Park.
Catalans, of course, have had a week off in preparation for tonight’s game although they are sweating on the fitness of Sam Tomkins, their England full-back who has been shortlisted for Steve Prescott Man of Steel and is one of four Dragons named in the Super League Dream Team.
Smith – who is contemplating recalling England winger Ryan Hall just three weeks after he tore a bicep – conceded: “Catalans are a terrific team.
“They have been the best, are well coached, have great experience and some real young exciting French players. I don’t have to beef them up too much; they have got what they deserved and that was the League Leaders’ Shield.
“But we have competed well against them and that encourages us. We’ll see how it goes. We’d like to compete again and if we can turn it our way it will be great.
“They’ll have had a week off to freshen up. We know it’s going to be a tough task but at the same time we’re looking forward to it.”
Rovers, who finished sixth, will fly in and out of France today for the semi-final, looking to take a step closer towards lifting a first league championship since defending the title in 1984-85.
Whatever happens, there will be a new name at Old Trafford to contest the Grand Final on Saturday week: Steve McNamara’s Catalans, who survived relegation by winning the Million Pound Game as recently as 2017, are seeking their first appearance, too.
Smith, who led Leeds to their first Grand Final win in 2004 and reached Old Trafford three times with Wolves, said: “It’s terrific. I’m really pleased for Super League and it’s good for the sport there’s going to be a new face at Old Trafford.
“It’s a real positive and in theory that’s what should happen when you have a salary cap but that’s probably not been the case so much. The promotion/relegation argument comes into it again; it’s difficult to break the shackles of getting out of that bottom area and into the top area.
“And that’s probably why the big clubs like it as it is.”