IT IS more than 20 years since Featherstone Rovers’ only previous chance to reach Super League painfully slipped through their grasp but their captain that night believes the current squad could now finally complete the job.
If the confident part-timers can cause yet another upset by winning on the road – well, in the air is probably more fitting – in Saturday’s Championship Grand Final at Toronto Wolfpack they will have earned the right to be considered for the top flight.
It is already a remarkable tale in its own right; Featherstone sneaked into the top-five yet have since won away from home on successive weekends at Leigh Centurions, York City Knights and Toulouse Olympique.
They only arrived back from France yesterday afternoon yet those players that can secure time off work will be flying out to Canada on Thursday ready to try and topple the might of the big-spending full-time Wolfpack.
Almost three million people live in the Canadian city compared to barely 15,000 in the erstwhile mining town nestled between Wakefield and Pontefract.
It was still special but I remember in ‘98 Wakefield started off like a house on fire and it really took us by surprise.Shaun Irwin
Super League had been expecting Toronto or Toulouse in 2020 but it could yet be ‘t’old Fev’.
When Featherstone last had such a chance for glory in 1998, rather than cross the Atlantic, they only had 28 miles to travel to Huddersfield to face neighbours Wakefield Trinity.
In an epic, fraught encounter, Trinity eventually won the inaugural Division One Grand Final 24-22 and have been in Super League ever since, even if they have diced with relegation too many times for their liking.
It was a sliding doors moment for Featherstone, who were leading heading into the final minutes, and have never managed to get close again, their 2011 Grand Final success coming in the years of licencing and no promotion.
Shaun Irwin, the hard-hitting former Castleford and Great Britain centre who led Rovers, recalled to The Yorkshire Post: “I can reflect a little bit now on what we achieved in 98.
“We’d played Whitehaven and put so many points on them. We’d only just got into the top-five but once we were in we gathered so much momentum and sensed something special happening.
“I hope Fev can do the same now. We’d massive belief in what we were doing. It looks like they have that same feeling given the way they’re going. It’d be great to see them go finish it off.
“It’ll be tough against Toronto but it’s 80 minutes isn’t it and they’re playing so well.”
Leaders Wakefield scored two tries inside the opening five minutes to press on in 1998.
Irwin, 50, added: “Going in in ‘98, both clubs felt they had the infrastructure in place to get into Super League should they win and that was good to know.
“The year after I captained Hunslet and we went on and actually won the Grand Final but we knew beforehand we didn’t fit the criteria to go up.
“It was still special but I remember in ‘98 Wakefield started off like a house on fire and it really took us by surprise.
“We’d had a brilliant win at Hull KR in the semis; in the changing rooms after that match even we were shell-shocked at just how well we played. Everything we did turned to gold. It meant that – even though others didn’t – we certainly considered ourselves as favourites for the final.
“But Wakey came out so quick. I remember thinking ‘Christ, that speed is so fast.’ I knew if we could just persevere and weather the storm our time would come.
“It did. We were in front going into the last few minutes but then there was a turning point.
“Karl Pratt picked up a loose ball and went the length of the field but the ref spotted a knock-on. Wakefield scored instead and won it but I got the players together at the end and talked about how much pride I had in them.
“We’d not got the win but it was still such a special time. I had two years at Fev and that second year was really enjoyable. It’s a stand-out season in my career – and that’s me being a Cas lad as well.”
Wakefield eventually earned their promotion after satisfying the minimum standards criteria.
“Featherstone would have been under the same sort of scrutiny if we’d have won,” said Irwin.
“They’d have been great in Super League, though. When I played for Cas I played plenty of games against them and that rivalry was immense. People turned out to see that derby and they’d turn out to see them in Super League now. They’d be fantastic for Super League in that way, no matter what others might say.
“And what they’ve done off the field improving the stadium, I think it’s good enough to be in there. I really do hope they can go on and earn the right to play in the top division.”