THE clubs on show are the same as 12 months ago but the circumstances surrounding tomorrow’s Co-op Championship Grand Final are entirely different.
That is the view of Sheffield Eagles captain Andrew Henderson as his side bid to upset the odds and defeat reigning champions Featherstone Rovers.
A year ago, his Eagles side caused a real stir by surging to the Warrington showpiece from fourth place.
They defeated a host of leading clubs along the way in a fascinating play-off run beating Super League-bound Widnes and champions Halifax before winning a qualifying semi-final at Leigh.
In many ways it was similar to what Leeds Rhinos achieved in Super League. Until the very last act, at least.
Ultimately, the battle to reach the Grand Final left jaded Sheffield a spent force and they were easily swept aside 40-4 by the minor premiers Featherstone.
For coach Mark Aston and Henderson it was no way to sign off.
Admittedly, it was their first experience of a Grand Final as opposed to their revered opponents who are now preparing for their third successive appearance after also securing the League Leaders’ Shield in each of the last three seasons.
But Henderson, the skilled hooker who was previously such a force with Castleford Tigers in Super League, believes they are now far better prepared for what lies ahead tomorrow.
“Last year was disappointing but Featherstone were a very good, experienced side and extremely determined,” said the Scotland international.
“We went into the game with a few injures, we lacked a little bit of experience and realistically we were probably one game too far,” he said.
“This year we have had a better season and played better rugby which has resulted in improved performances.
“Our squad is stronger this season and I believe we have the focus to win.”
Indeed, the South Yorkshire club are a far more rounded outfit.
They finished fourth again but, tellingly, only six points adrift of Featherstone compared to a massive 17 last term.
Also, something which will encourage them further is the fact their opponents have yet to defeat them this season.
Sheffield produced a brilliant 60-40 win at Featherstone back in April, one of only two league losses inflicted on Daryl Powell’s side all year.
They followed that up with a thrilling 28-28 draw at Don Valley just last month.
Since then, improving Sheffield have beaten John Kear’s Batley Bulldogs and Northern Rail Cup winners Halifax in the play-offs before again winning a Final Eliminator at Leigh last Thursday.
They were not at their best that evening, something Aston partly thought was down to the short four-day turnaround from their Sunday success over Halifax, but have now had nine days to prepare for the biggest game of the season.
“We have shown effort, determination and a lot of character this season and especially during the play-offs,” added Henderson.
“You have to be confident going into games and I’m sure we will be but we also know there’s been areas for us to work on in training this week.
“Featherstone are a strong team with key players; Ben Kaye is always a danger as is Liam Finn and Andy Kain.”
Scrum-half Finn won the Championship player of the year award for a third time in four seasons on Tuesday night and, inevitably, he proves the catalyst for Rovers who are well-rested having only had to beat Leigh to head straight to Warrington.
However, totemic prop Stuart Dickens inevitably produces much of their go-forward along with Anthony England and hauling those two down will be crucial to Sheffield’s chances.
Henderson, approaching his fourth final having won twice with Castleford in 2005 and 2007, added: “They are a consistent team who are hard to break down but everyone has an off-day and we are more than capable of causing an upset.
“Our goal at the start of the season was to go one better than we did last year and we are now 80 minutes away from achieving that.
“It’s a great day for our fans and rugby league fans in general; there will be a cracking atmosphere on Sunday and I hope we can make the Sheffield fans proud.
“To win would be fantastic for the club, the fans and the city,” he added.
It might not be as celebrated as their famous Challenge Cup final victory over Wigan in 1998, when Aston was Lance Todd Trophy winner, but if Sheffield were to prosper it would certainly be a significant step forward in their bid to retake their place among the elite.