Winter recruits behind Batley Bulldogs' stunning start to season

DEFEATING three of the previous year's top-four in your opening quartet of games is good going by anyone's standards.

Batley Bulldog's Keegan Hirst during the Championship Shield Super 8's match at The Foxs Biscuits Stadium, Batley. (Picture: Richard Sellers/PA Wire)
Batley Bulldog's Keegan Hirst during the Championship Shield Super 8's match at The Foxs Biscuits Stadium, Batley. (Picture: Richard Sellers/PA Wire)

But if you are also a part-time club who finished ninth in that previous year and spent most of it striving to avoid relegation, the feat is bordering on remarkable.

However, that is just what unfashionable Batley Bulldogs have achieved in the early part of this Championship campaign, following up their opening day win against 2015 league leaders Leigh Centurions by defeating not only ambitious Sheffield Eagles but Halifax, too.

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All of that trio were in the Qualifiers last season facing Super League opposition something which, if they carry on at this rate, Batley could achieve, too.

Indeed, listen closely enough and you can hear people at Mount Pleasant, the characterful home of the West Yorkshire club, whispering about ‘doing a Leicester’.

That may be an uphill task but given their famous sloping pitch they are certainly used to tackling tall orders.

For captain Keegan Hirst, the powerful prop who has long been integral to John Kear’s side, there is no rocket science to their transformation.

“I don’t think you could have anticipated beating two full-time teams and Halifax – who did so well last year – so quickly but a lot of people had written us off before a ball was kicked,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting us to pick up any points from our first four games, let alone six from eight.

“But we’ve just put into practice what we’ve worked so hard on in pre-season and the main thing is the recruitment the club has made, too.

“It has really helped getting Dominic Brambani and Pat Walker in from Sheffield plus Jimmy (Davey) too, although he’s not really played much yet.

“Basically, their kicking game and ability to just direct us around the park is really good.

“Chris Ulugia in the centre has been outstanding and I think, because the quality across the squad is such, that competition has gone up.

“That competition for places being more tough means people are stepping up a bit more.

“Cain Southernwood, for example, is a totally different player for us this season. He is playing out of his skin as he knows he is not guaranteed a place which he probably was last year.”

It is ironic that in moving to full-time status last December, Sheffield lost three of their finest players who were unable or unwilling to make that employment switch.

“They are all experienced Championship players,” admitted Hirst, who gave Batley some rare profile last year when becoming the first openly gay British rugby league player to come out.

“Sheffield’s loss has certainly been our gain.”

Batley’s sole defeat was at one of those clubs, like Leigh, who are intent on earning promotion – Featherstone Rovers.

Some would argue they should have prospered there, too, having lost out only marginally in a 14-12 reverse.

Hirst, though, believes tomorrow’s home game with winless Workington Town is crucial, too.

“I’ve been saying to the boys at training that this is probably the first game of the year where we’ve been going in as favourites,” said the 28-year-old.

“It is a different challenge for us; it’s easy to get up for a game when people are writing you off but it’s important we now maintain these standards we’ve set, really push on and get that level of consistency we require in this division to get up to being a top six or, who knows, top four side.

“This is a bit of acid test for us.”

If they succeed, then it will be another step in the right direction, but some do not want to wait; there was talk this week of Batley been thrust up to second favourites to actually finish top.

“I don’t think that will happen,” smiled Hirst.

“But stranger things have happened, I suppose. Look at Leicester…

“It’s a cliché but we are just taking things week to week. We’ve not set targets of where we want to finish.

“We did that last season and finished woefully short.

“But, as a side, we know what we’re capable of and we do have targets like reaching certain completion rates in games.

“We’re trying to keep our feet on the ground and just chip away.”