Hepworth’s giant-killing mission against his hometown heroes

Jonny Hepworth’s path from Castleford Tigers to Featherstone Rovers has been a little more circuitous than most.

The distance between the two gritty mining towns is just a couple of miles and a few players have, over both clubs’ long histories, made the short journey between the fierce derby rivals.

Gifted stand-off Graham Steadman famously did so when, much to the chagrin of Rovers fans, he joined Castleford for a world record £170,000 fee in 1989.

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Ian Smales and legendary centre Paul Newlove are others to have worn the colours of both, plus ‘The Baby Face Assassin’ Kiwi Brendon Tuuta and similarly well-respected Shaun Irwin ands 1950s winger Cyril Woolford.

Five of the current Featherstone squad operating in the Championship have played with Castleford, adding further zest to tomorrow’s hugely-anticipated televised Carnegie Challenge Cup fourth round tie between the neighbouring clubs.

Half-back Hepworth, 29, is one of the those to cross the great divide but his transition took fully six years and, along the way, he journeyed across the Irish Sea to Leinster of all places.

His excellent kicking game had attracted union admirers shortly after helping Castleford back into Super League in 2005.

He made the bold decision to join the Dublin-based province and only returned to his first love last year via spells back in Yorkshire with Leeds Carnegie and Rotherham Titans.

“I had the chance to stay with Cas when we got promoted that year but the opportunity in rugby union came up,” Hepworth recalled to the Yorkshire Post.

“It was our old conditioner at Tigers – Brad Harrington – who put me in touch with Leinster.

“I was still quite young and wanted to give it a try.

“I enjoyed five years in union and wasn’t really looking to come back but I’m so glad I did now.

“I’m really enjoying it at Fev and the place has gone crazy ahead of the Cas game. It’s been a few years since the sides last met.

“I played against Fev for Cas at our ground in 2005 and it was just an unbelievable atmosphere.

“We won easy – Fev got relegated that year – but it’s exciting to now to be playing against my home town. There’s a few of us doing it and we know our fans here will be up for this.”

Hailing from Castleford, and now fully immersed in Featherstone’s quest for a cup shock, he knows just what the fixture means to the locals.

Saturday’s surprise 60-40 defeat against Sheffield Eagles – a repeat of the Championship Grand Final Rovers won last September – was not the expected build-up.

That saw Daryl Powell’s side lose their incredible 22-match unbeaten league run.

Hepworth said: “It was a weird game. If you score 40 points you don’t expect to lose so it was a big shock but we put it to bed at training on Tuesday night.

“We had a bit of a touch-up last year before we went on that run and it kick-started our season.

“It might do us some good in a way and, hopefully, bring the best out in us for Cas.”

The part-time Rovers players have taken a day’s holiday from their usual jobs today to prepare for that task ahead,

Hepworth – one of four who the club employ full-time in their community programme – knows their Super League opponents will be favourites but the calibre of the Rovers squad suggests an upset could be possible.

“It is a big test,” added the player. “We played St Helens last year and didn’t really give it our best shot but, hopefully, this time, on our own ground in a local derby – you can’t get bigger rivalry – we can do something different.

“When the draw was made, Cas weren’t playing great but now they’ve turned it around a bit and hit some form.

“But we’ve a few players with a point to prove and some wanting to get back into Super League.”

One of those will be the excellent Tom Saxton, a tall, powerful winger who was a Castleford team-mate of Hepworth’s but who has been one of the Championship’s most consistent players in recent years.

“He’s been getting a bit of banter this week,” admitted Hepworth. “He’s a big Cas fan and if we haven’t got a game you can find him down there.”

What of Hepworth’s own aspirations to return to the top flight? Featherstone’s ‘Destination Super League’ programme – and a positive result tomorrow – hopes to see them earn a licence for 2015.

“It is a long-term goal,” admits a player who started out in the same Leeds Rhinos Academy side as Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire.

“If I stay fit and keep getting in the team here who knows? I’ll be pushing 32, 33 then but players are playing longer and longer now. We’ll see how the body holds up.”

It would be fitting if he could go up with Powell, the coach who has been instrumental throughout his career.

It was the ex-Great Britain international , who also hails from Castleford, who gave him his sole Super League appearance with the Rhinos in 2003.

The presence of such budding talents as Burrow, McGuire and experienced Australian Andrew Dunemann, however, meant chances would always be slim and he moved to Castleford.

Hepworth added: “Daryl also took me to Leeds Carnegie and brought me back to Fev.

“I left Carnegie a bit disheartened and went to Rotherham but didn’t really get on with the coach. I jumped at the chance to join up with Daryl again here.

“He’s worked wonders on the field, the community side’s going great and, with plans to improve the stadium, all being well we’ll be up to Super League standards.”

No relation to one of Castleford’s most famous rugby playing sons Keith – “I get asked that a lot” – Hepworth will hope to be able to face his home town again in Super League.

But, first, all attention is switched to tomorrow’s potential giant-killing act.