After being forced to take his biggest break from rugby league since his teenage years, Craig Hall is delighted to see the sport outside of Super League making its return.
The 33-year-old from Hull took to the field for the first time in just under a year last Saturday as Featherstone Rovers breezed past Oldham with an emphatic 58-10 pre-season victory.
The former Hull FC, Wakefield Trinity and Hull Kingston Rovers player kicked five goals as his side ran in 12 tries in the behind-closed-doors friendly.
Today marks a year since the last time Rovers played competitively, when they breezed past League One Hunslet 46-6 in the Challenge Cup.
Undefeated in 2020, Featherstone’s season was brought to a halt in March before a decision was taken in the summer that the campaign would be curtailed.
Hall hoped that he and Rovers, who were targeting a place in Super League, would be able to get back playing after a flying start to the season.
Their first competitive game will be on March 21 in the Challenge Cup against Bradford Bulls before they take on Batley Bulldogs on Good Friday in their first outing of the Championship season.
“It has been the biggest break I have had since I was a teenager. Early on, I was just waiting to get back playing,” he said.
“Fitness wise, there is only so much you can do on your own. When it was decided we weren’t getting back at all, it was quite disappointing.
“I didn’t really watch too much rugby after that. I have just been waiting for this season to start. Now we have got the go-ahead, hopefully we won’t stop again and we can have this full year.”
Hall spent some of his time off on the golf course, when restrictions permitted, and with his daughter while waiting for a return to action. He admits he wasn’t able to get his handicap down much but was glad to spend more time with his family.
“I played a bit of golf when the weather was nice and they let you play in twos and fours,” he said.
“I spent a lot of time with my daughter, which was good.
“There was the homeschooling, it was quite hard, through Year 2 and 3, so I had to help her out.
“Homeschooling was a bit better during the latest lockdown, things were a bit more organised.
“I kept as fit as I could when we first went into lockdown, hoping the season would kick off again.
“Obviously it stopped but then I had a bit of a rest and started it all again.”
Hall’s team-mates, Brett Ferres and James Harrison, spent the second half of the 2020 campaign on loan at Leeds Rhinos.
The former Toronto Wolfpack player would have jumped at the chance to return to action last season but has taken the positive that he is feeling fresh for the year ahead.
Hall continued: “I would have played. I spoke to somebody at the club later on in the year and they said other teams had been ringing to see if anyone was available.
“They never put my name forward for some reason. It would have been better than twiddling my thumbs at home but it is what it is.
“It would have been all right to play but I am fresh for this year.”
One of Rovers’ most impressive wins last year was a 34-10 triumph at promotion rivals London Broncos.
That victory put the rest of the division on notice but what was shaping up to be an enthralling fight for a spot in Super League, never played out.
This year, the aim is the same for Featherstone. The top six sides in the Championship will enter a play-off series with the winner set to earn a spot in the top flight.
Rovers have 31 players on their roster this season but Hall admits the squad needs to be stronger as other promotion challengers have bolstered as well.
“We were pretty disappointed with the way it finished last year. We hadn’t lost a game,” he added.
“We went down to London before it all stopped and put a really good performance in.
“It would have been good to build on that for the rest of the year. I was quite confident with where we could have been last year.
“The squad has to be stronger this year because there are quite a few clubs who have made quality signings.
“We have not really set any targets. As a team we know where we want to be but we have not said it out loud.”
As well as signing the likes of Junior Moors, Craig Kopczak, Tom Holmes and Nu Brown – players with top-flight experience in both hemispheres – having players back from injury will also provide a huge boost for Featherstone this year.
Forwards Brad Day and John Davies didn’t play a part last year due to injury but returned in the friendly win over Oldham.
Former Hull KR player Thomas Minns signed for the club ahead of the 2020 season but is still waiting for his debut after injury set-backs.
“There are a few lads who didn’t play last year because of injuries; John Davies, Thomas Minns, and Brad Day has come back from his knee injury,” said Hall.
“They are just as good as signings really. There are quite a number of players fighting for places, there are going to be some disappointed people come round one. There have been plenty of teams that have made decent signings and they are all going to be aiming for that top six.
“I don’t think there are going to be any surprises as such, I think Toulouse are strong, York have signed strong and London will be up there.
“We are not really bothered about the other sides. We just need to be performing.”
Featherstone face Batley Bulldogs in their final pre-season game this afternoon.
They kick off their competitive campaign with a first-round Challenge Cup clash against Bradford Bulls on March 21.
He added: “It will be good to focus on that Bradford game. Being at home without any fans isn’t the best but the lads are looking forward to it.
“Hopefully we can beat them and go into the next round.”
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