Coaches step into spotlight for final collision

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It is not often in rugby league circles that coaches emerge as the centre of attention

There is no self-styled José Mourinho “Special One” nor any of the simmering tension which once underpinned Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez’s long-term rivalry.

Granted, Brian Noble and Ian Millward used to have some entertaining spats at the height of the Bradford/St Helens face-offs.

But sitting cosily together in the BBC pundits’ chairs, as they often do nowadays, points towards a more realistic representation of their relationship.

However, Sunday’s finely-balanced Northern Rail Cup final between Featherstone Rovers and Halifax is intriguing not only for the tremendous prospect of seeing the Championship’s finest sides do battle but just as much as their highly-respected leaders.

Rovers coach Daryl Powell and his counterpart over at The Shay – Karl Harrison – are rightly earning plenty of plaudits for the diligent and effective work they are carrying out as two English coaches in the second tier.

It seems only a matter of time before one, if not both, will surely be showing their wares again in Super League and helping prove not everything Australian is gold.

As former Great Britain team-mates, most famously in 1990 when the roaring Lions came closet yet to ending Australia’s domination, they forged a life-long friendship.

Powell was the unyielding centre who had famed Kangaroo Mark McGaw in his back pocket while Harrison was the equally uncompromising prop who went toe-to-toe with the likes of Steve ‘Blocker’ Roach and Martin Bella.

“If you look back at it now, at that point I think we were on top of the Aussies as a forward pack or not far off at least,” Powell told the Yorkshire Post as he recalled a vintage Ashes series on home soil.

“Karl was a big part of that and I enjoyed playing with him. We became mates even though he absolutely slated us last time we played them.”

He refers to Featherstone’s outstanding 24-4 victory at Halifax towards the end of June which saw them usurp their fierce rivals from the top of the Championship.

Rovers have remained there ever since and, with their brutal defence and countless attacking options, are currently the form side in the country; a win at Blackpool on Sunday will amount to a 12th successive victory.

Harrison, though, was irate about the tactics their West Yorkshire rivals used that night, infuriated by the slow speed of the ruck and adding: “It’s not fair to the teams that are coached clean because other teams are using these wrestling, or cheating, techniques.”

It stirred up quite a stink and will make this weekend’s affair all the more fascinating but Powell counters: “I think Karl was frustrated. It was straight after the game and he was speaking his mind which is fair enough.

“I don’t agree with him but I’m not always going to agree with him. I just felt we controlled the game better and we were the better team.

“When they beat us by 60 points we just copped it on the chin and moved forward.

“There’s a few tussles to have with Karl and Halifax this year and in the coming seasons.

“Hopefully, we’ll be the ones that maintain our form and is right on top come Sunday.

“I haven’t spoken to him since but I’m not worried about that too much. We’ll have a chat on the final day.

“Karl’s done a good job wherever he’s been – Salford, Batley and now Halifax. He’s a good coach and I know we must be at our best to get over them.”

Harrison, of course, led Batley to an historic success in Blackpool two years ago before taking over at Halifax at the end of last season.

They have enjoyed notable triumphs against Featherstone in recent seasons, including a golden-point victory in both the 2010 Championship Grand Final and last year’s Northern Rail Cup semi-final.

But Rovers have grown in stature since, defeating Halifax in last season’s Grand Final before further showing their pedigree by knocking Super League Castleford Tigers out of the Challenge Cup and pushing holders Wigan Warriors hard.

Those epic cup encounters, though, had a debilitating effect on Featherstone’s league form as they lost 60-40 at home to Sheffield Eagles and then endured that 60-12 hammering when ‘Fax arrived.

It is a sign of their mettle and mentality that they recovered in such style; Rovers have won all 11 games since that May 6 debacle.

“That was the challenge we faced – can we rediscover our best?” said ex-Leeds Rhinos coach Powell.

“You will always get a tough period every season and then find out where you are.

“We managed to put this good run together. We did the same last year and need to carry it on again now.

“I don’t think we can afford to lose any more games in the league and expectations are pretty high for us as a club.

“We’ve never been to a Northern Rail Cup final before so this is really important for us but we are confident we can win.

“Halifax are a good side with some quality in their ranks but the way we’ve been playing we’ll be a challenge for them as well.

“It should be a great final. It’s just crucial we play to our best.”