Weekend Interview: Experienced Tim Sheens plots Hull Kingston Rovers' revival

IT WILL be a sport trivia question in years to come: which World Cup-winning coach, who became the first in Australian rugby league to reach 600 games and also won four Premierships, suddenly found himself in charge of an English second-tier club?

No regrets: World Cup-winning coach agreed to take charge of Hull Kingston Rovers midway through last season, before a dramatic collapse saw them relegated from the top flight, but the Asutralian is happy to start the rebuilding job in the Championship. (Picture: Hull KR)

The answer, of course, is Tim Sheens who commands Hull KR for the first time in a competitive fixture tomorrow as the club stunned by relegation last October begins the arduous path back towards Super League.

It is a fascinating story, considering how the esteemed coach ended up in this position preparing for games at unlikely outposts such as Swinton, Rochdale and Dewsbury.

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When Sheens, who lifted the World Cup with the Kangaroos as recently as 2013, accepted Rovers chairman Neil Hudgell’s offer to coach them in 2017 last year, they were still in Super League.

Tim Sheens takes a training session at Hull KR.

However, an alarming run of results saw the East Yorkshire club dragged into the dreaded uncertainty of the Qualifiers.

A few weeks later, in a spectacular collapse that saw the Robins squander an 18-10 advantage with barely 90 seconds remaining, they lost the Million Pound Game to Salford Red Devils who survived instead at their expense.

The irony of it all was 66-year-old Sheens was actually director of rugby at Salford last season – he stepped aside in the week building up to that definitive contest due to the obvious conflict of interest that had arisen.

So, the team he left stayed up while the team he was joining went down. And in the cruellest of fashions.

Tim Sheens takes a training session at Hull KR.

Sydney-born Sheens, who led Canberra Raiders to three titles and managed Australia for seven years from 2009, could easily have walked away from the East Yorkshire club at that point but vowed to take up his contract and plot for life in the Championship.

“I gave Neil (Hudgell) the option given they’d employed me as a Super League coach,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“He said ‘no’ and that he’d like me to come to the club.

“I told him I’d committed to him so I was coming.

“It was bizarre what happened that week before and the game itself lived up to that expectation also being just as bizarre.

“But I’ve moved on from that and my role is with KR now.

“I really don’t want to reflect on it. It’s like yesterday’s news; it’s done and dusted.

“It’s what we create in the future that’s important and our role on Sunday is to start strongly with a win, put in a good effort and build on that.”

For all Hull KR fans may still wonder how they suffered relegation, at least their situation never fell as low as that of tomorrow’s visitors Bradford Bulls.

The club who, ironically, defeated Sheens’ NRL premiers Wests Tigers in 2006 to win the last of their three World Club Challenge titles, have been on their knees following yet another financial collapse and, newly-formed last month, will start the season on minus 12 points.

Bradford have had to borrow players ahead of tomorrow’s game while their own big-name Australian coach Geoff Toovey, the former Manly, New South Wales State of Origin and Kangaroos hooker Sheens once coached, can only watch on as he is here on a holiday visa while awaiting the necessary paperwork to take up the role.

In contrast, Rovers have been well-backed by their hierarchy, maintaining a largely Super League squad and it is no surprise they are clear favourites to top the league.

Admittedly, whether that happens or not, it will still not be easy to then successfully navigate the Qualifiers and secure an immediate top-flight return.

However, in Sheens they have a decorated coach who fashioned a reputation earlier in his career for revitalising under-performing sides.

He led Canberra to their first-ever title in 1989 but explained: “It was more with Penrith before.

“They hadn’t made a semi from 1966 to 1985 when I took them to the semis for the first time. That was a team with not a big budget but a lot of good young blokes and a lot of them went on to be great players.

“The year before I got to the Raiders, Don Furner and Wayne Bennett took them to the Grand Final in ‘87 but it was unexpected.

“Then the expectations were high, though, to maintain that but the foundations were already laid for me.

“And so it is here at KR, too. The foundations were there but we’ve had to do a lot of recruiting, making changes to the major positions, so we have some work to do.

“But every coach in the league has an element of change to their side.

“You hope it works out for the better but it does take time to get it to work and everyone on the same page.”

Rovers have a new half-back pairing in Huddersfield Giants loanee Jamie Ellis and Jordan Abdull, also on a season-long loan from rivals Hull FC, while Australian Adam Quinlan is another new addition.

Sheens, meanwhile, won further premierships with Canberra in 1990 and 1994, overseeing a star-studded squad that included the likes of Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart and Bradley Clyde.

“I was very fortunate to work with them for nine years,” he recalled.

“There was some once-in-a-generation players there if I’m quite honest.

“But it’s a long time ago now; we’re in 2017 and working hard to get our heads down, working and playing together so come the end of the year we are going to challenge in those bigger games.

“But we have to go through this competition with good results not just winning games, but playing good football. The score’s not important; the style of football and way we play is.

“Gelling them together as a squad is very important. That’s why it’s called a team sport.

“There’s still a bit of pulling and shoving between the spine; the new halves and full-back. There’s some key positions that haven’t played much together.

“And we know Bradford will come out firing at us on Sunday.”

Sheens, who has also coached New South Wales State of Origin side, is not at ease reflecting on past achievements but he does describe leading Wests Tigers to their maiden NRL Grand Final glory as “one of the better ones.”

That side contained the Kiwi maverick Benji Marshall in career-best form and Sheens continued: “We were under salary cap as well that year, self-imposed at £300,000 behind.

“It doesn’t seem like much now but it was in ’05. We were never allowed to use it.

“But it was one of those things that year; we had one good team, they stayed healthy at the back end of the season and got us through.

“They’re the sort of things that, when you haven’t got much depth, you have to have a good run with injuries and the injury gods have to look after you.

“We had a classy spine, and quick, with Benji (Marshall), (Scott) Prince, (Brett) Hodgson and (Robbie) Farrah.

“They were four young guys – even Hodgo wasn’t old – but they came together over the year.

“It took a while – we were 11th at halfway – but it did.

“It clicked. They led the way and I think our spine can do the same here in that they can lead the way for the team as we get more and more football behind us.”