Interview: A million reasons to have positive outlook for James Webster and Hull KR

Hull KR head coach James Webster.
Hull KR head coach James Webster.
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THANKFULLY for James Webster and the club’s petrified followers, Hull KR’s head coach is one of life’s eternally positive characters.

It is in situations like this afternoon’s that that trait can prove invaluable.

There will be some queasy stomachs throughout east Hull today and from Salford parts, too, as Rovers take on the Red Devils for the ultimate prize.

No, we are not talking about the Super League Grand Final – that is in a week’s time – we are referring to Super League survival and, essentially, avoiding relegation in the ‘Million Pound Game’.

Webster is in charge of a Rovers side who have played their part in the top-flight for a decade, ever since the then wily Australian scrum-half captained them to promotion in the 2006 National League One Grand Final, and have no desire whatsoever to depart.

However, their destiny will be decided in the forthcoming 80 minutes at KC Lightstream Stadium, a brutal prospect but one everyone has known could occur since the season kicked off in February.

On the prospect of relegation, the 37-year-old conceded: “It would be a disappointment but I haven’t thought about it.

“I’m very much of a glass half full rather than empty at the moment; we’re just preparing to win this game.

“Should you ask me what I felt like at the end of the game if we were relegated, well I could give you a clearer picture of that.

“But the feeling of disappointment and despair is not one I’m thinking about, it’s just about getting the job done.”

As all head coaches know, however, he is stuck in the helpless position of handing over all control to his players at 3pm this afternoon; the former Parramatta Eel will not be able to swing a boot, or step through a defensive line, to make his own crucial intervention as he once did before retiring early in 2010 after a spell with Widnes Vikings to concentrate on coaching.

But his squads are always prepared well. It is one of the first comments players make when asked about his input when arriving as an interim head coach just three games into this season following Chris Chester’s sacking.

Webster, who had been in charge at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats for just short of 12 months before quitting in May last year, was working as chief of the City of Hull Academy – an amalgamation of Rovers and Hull FC’s finest youngsters – when answering the SOS of Robins chairman Neil Hudgell.

Hamstrung by injuries, it has been an arduous campaign with an 11th-place finish resulting in life in the Qualifiers for a second year running.

Whereas last year they eased to success in the Middle Eights under Chester, this time, however, has been more taxing and, so, having finished fourth to Salford’s fifth, they find themselves in the sudden-death battle everyone dreads.

Has there been any discussion of what will happen if they do fail and end up in the Championship, void contracts and redundancies often being the case?

“There’s been no talk of contingencies for next year should we lose,” insisted Webster. “We’ve been a team that always said we want to attack these Middle 8s and we have.

“Look at our results: we’ve been really competitive against a lot of good teams and we wanted to go out there and be as positive as possible.

“That hasn’t changed for this one. We need to play well as Salford are a good side.

“Realistically, they finished in the top eight (Salford’s six-point deduction for salary cap breaches saw them drop to 10th, level with Rovers) so you’d feel pretty tough if you were Salford at the moment; they finished eighth and are playing in the ‘Million Pound Game’.”

That Rovers won at Salford during the Qualifiers will offer some encouragement but Webster – who says he has tried to stay clear of all the club’s office staff this week, their futures being at stake, too – realises that means little now.

They could have saved themselves all this agony and trepidation by beating Huddersfield Giants at Craven Park last Saturday, or even drawing, but lost 23-22.

“We had so many contributors and we had a lot of people at eight, nine or 10 last week and a couple of people at five or six,” said Webster, who has made east Hull his adopted home since moving there from Sydney in 2005.

“To win this game, we have to be really consistent across the board and have no one way out top and people down low in their ratings.

“If we can be really consistent across the park we give ourselves a chance. It’s a process; what hinges on the result is the only thing that’s different.

“The game’s the same, the pitch is the same – the same pitch that we play on every week – the same amount of people playing, the referee’s the same... it’s the outcome that’s different.”

There has, of course, been plenty of detractors of the ‘Million Pound Game’ this week who think it is contrived and crass, not least Rovers’ own full-back Ben Cockayne who, to some consternation, labelled the concept a “disgrace.”

“I’ve said early what I thought of this game but I don’t want to detract from what the game’s about, and take my eye off the ball ahead of it,” said Webster, who will stand aside to become assistant of incoming Tim Sheens, who won the 2013 World Cup with Australia and who stood down this week from his role as Salford’s director of rugby.

“The RFL are trying to create some publicity which is fantastic for the game, but, in my opinion, you get one week’s publicity for probably weakening the competition next year.

“So, you get 27 weeks of mediocrity next year for two weeks of interesting. But that’s just my opinion.”

Salford, with former Hull KR talisman Michael Dobson at their helm and robust centre Junior Sa’u as their principal strike threat, pose all sorts of questions when they are on song.

“We understand they’re an extremely powerful side on the edges, and can score a lot of points,” added Webster.

“With people such as Ben Murdoch-Masila, George Griffin, Sau and Josh Jones on the edge to play, we know they’re a very hard team to stop.

“So, I think we have a good understanding of what’s needed to be done. It’s whether or not we can do it which is the important thing.”