HULL Kingston Rovers chairman Neil Hudgell says beating Leeds Rhinos in today’s Challenge Cup final would be the biggest shock since Sheffield Eagles’ 1998 heroics – but still would not see the club as a main player in the game.
On the sport’s 120th birthday, Super League leaders Leeds are huge 1-5 favourites to lift the Ladbrokes-sponsored trophy for a second year running at Wembley against opponents who have only prospered once before in their long history.
Hudgell was on the terraces as a 13-year-old Rovers supporter when they famously achieved that triumph in 1980 against fierce rivals Hull.
He was also at Wembley for their last Challenge Cup final appearance in 1986, the agonising 15-14 loss to Castleford.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Hudgell said: “It’s a very surreal thing to think that, stood on the terraces in ’86 when (John) Dorahy missed that touchline kick to beat Cas’, the next time I’m at Wembley watching Rovers like this is 29 years later – and I’m leading the team out as chairman with my daughter as mascot.
“She’s 12 and she’s looking forward to it. It’s lifetime memories isn’t it?
“But I’m aware of the enormity of the task in front of us and the last parallel is probably Sheffield beating Wigan in ’98.
“If you look at recent finals, Hull went in against Wigan as underdogs and lost, as they did against Saints, and Catalans lost as well.
“Huddersfield lost twice, Cas’ lost to Leeds last year and all the second-favourites have got beaten. Arguably, Hull were the last underdogs in ’05 when they defeated Leeds but they played in the Grand Final the following year so were a good side.
“It’s a massive occasion for us because there is only one (Hull) club who have ever won the cup at Wembley and that was us in ’80.
“Hull have been around 150 years, we’ve been around 130, so it is an enormous opportunity to make a big piece of history.
“You don’t appreciate at the time just how big it was in 1980. It is still talked about now 35 years on. Yet for me, Saturday is about respecting that but trying to write a new history as well so there’s something else to talk about going forward.”
Rovers were at the height of their powers in the early Eighties and the country’s best team but started falling after that loss to Castleford and have struggled to compete during the summer era.
Solicitor Hudgell, who completed a journey from Robins ball-boy to chairman when he took over in 2000, has, ironically, recruited Leeds prop Jamie Peacock, the legendary former Great Britain prop who retires at the end of the season to take on a new football manager role with KR.
“If we can win this game the pressure is immediately on him coming into a side winning silverware,” joked Hugell, about a player who has enjoyed vast success over the last decade with Leeds and, before that, Bradford Bulls.
“I’d said there’s an opportunity here for him as what we need to do in our club is elevate our level of professionalism, build a culture and build systems – and no-one’s got more experience of that than JP.
“But then, of course, we get to the final to face Leeds, the walls are now up and there’s silence this week for obvious reasons.
“One really important point for me to make, though, is I don’t see this, if we win, as being the start of a golden period necessarily.
“We still have to build the systems behind the scenes so we can get to a stage where we’re only evolving two, three players a year and some of that comes on the back of a better academy output.
“JP’s help with evolving that is a big part of the jigsaw but I’m the last person to say we’re there now because we’ve got to a final.
“The challenge for us is to become a club that thinks of a final as a natural progression and there’s another one around the corner as – after this one – I’m not sure when the next might be.”
Around 30,000 KR fans are expected at Wembley today to, hopefully, see a new era of heroes finally ease some of the burden on ’80 stars such as Roger Millward, Phil Lowe and Brian Lockwood.
After Leeds defeated Castleford last season, it is the first time in the national stadium’s history that the Challenge Cup final has been an all-Yorkshire affair in back-to-back campaigns.
Both sets of players trained there yesterday in the traditional Wembley ‘Walkabout’ with all eyes on KR’s scrum-half Albert Kelly, who has not played since the semi-final win over Warrington.
Tests on his knee were, apparently, satisfactory so the Australian should line-up today – significantly bolstering their hopes of achieving that shock victory.
Wembley build-up: Pages 6, 7 and 12.