HULL KR captain Shaun Lunt is relishing the opportunity to take his newly-promoted side to Elland Road and tackle defending Super League champions Leeds Rhinos at such an iconic venue.
After a year in the Championship, the ex-England hooker will lead the side out against Wakefield Trinity in their season opener at KCOM Craven Park on Friday, February 2.
However, arguably, it is their following game against his former club Leeds that will draw more attention as Rovers swap the likes of Dewsbury and Rochdale for a 38,000 capacity stadium
With rebuilding work ongoing at Emerald Headingley, Brian McDermott’s side have taken an opportunity to hold their first ‘home’ match against the Robins at Leeds United’s ground on Thursday, February 8.
Leeds will also repeat the move when hosting Castleford Tigers there in the Grand Final re-match on Friday, March 23.
By taking such intriguing games across the city – Rhinos legend Danny McGuire will face his hometown team for the first time when lining up with Hull KR – Leeds hope to break the competition attendance record of 25,004, set when Wigan Warriors hosted St Helens in 2005.
For Lunt, though, who won the 2012 Grand Final with Leeds while on loan from Huddersfield Giants, it is another grandiose venue to tick off his list.
“I’ve played at some really memorable grounds – Manchester United’s, Wembley, St James’ Park and Millennium Stadium and it’s massive to be able to do that,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“Just last week watching England play Australia in Melbourne, I said to my boys that their daddy had played there.
“Soon I’ll be able to say the same about Elland Road next time we drive past it. It’s a great ground. I’ve seen some World Club Challenges there and it’ll be brilliant now for us at Rovers to take Leeds on there, too.
Elland Road is a great ground. I’ve seen some World Club Challenges there and it’ll be brilliant now for us at Rovers to take Leeds on there, too.Hull KR’s Shaun Lunt
“It’ll be a bit weird for Maggsy (McGuire) in the red and white instead of blue and amber but what a legend. I’m certainly glad he’s on my side again now.”
There has, however, been some consternation with the fixture list that was announced yesterday with Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell voicing his “disappointment” that only two of the East Yorkshire club’s 11 home games have been scheduled on their preferred Sunday afternoon slot.
Although some fixtures are understandably moved for Sky Sports live broadcast, a number of other non-televised games have had to be switched to a Friday evening because either Rovers or the opposition are involved in the Thursday evening fixture the following week and therefore cannot play on the Sunday according to RFL guidelines.
“We share the disappointment of a section of our supporters on this issue and have expressed our feelings on the matter to the RFL,” said Hudgell.
“Since we received the first draft of fixtures on Friday, we have been in constant communication with the RFL to resolve the matter as much as possible but to no avail. Unfortunately, our hands are tied.”
The 2017 League Leaders’ Shield winners Castleford begin in front of the Sky Sports cameras at St Helens on Friday, February 2, while Ladbrokes Challenge Cup winners Hull FC host Huddersfield Giants the night before.
The Black and Whites, then, of course, take Super League on the road to Australia for the first time when they play Wigan Warriors in Wollongong on Saturday, February 10 before facing NRL side St George Illawarra in Sydney a week later.
On the back of that bold idea, it is perhaps no surprise Leeds, too, are looking at broadening their ability to stage a “bigger” event of their own.
Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington – currently in Australia hoping to finalise plans to play Melbourne Storm there in the World Club Challenge in February – is certainly pleased about their growing relationship with Leeds United.
“We’re delighted to be able to announce these two showcase events for Leeds Rhinos and rugby league at Elland Road,” he said.
“Under the leadership of chairman Andrea Radrizzani we’ve been able to work closely with Leeds United on projects that will benefit both clubs, but most importantly our home city here in Leeds. This is a win-win situation for both clubs.
“As owners of Elland Road, Leeds United know, as we do ourselves, how it is important to generate income from the stadium by hosting a variety of events and we will be hoping to bring large numbers to both these games.
“For ourselves, we recognise we have a duty to try and expand the game of rugby league by creating bigger events for our own fans and the wider public to enjoy.
“Whilst centrally, the game has grown events such as the Magic Weekend and Grand Final, it is important that the clubs play their part as we have seen in the rugby union Premiership over the last decade.
“That is why we are developing Emerald Headingley Stadium with a £40m project and why we have been working so hard to keep the World Club Challenge as an active part of our competition.
“These two games at Elland Road will be fantastic occasions and our aim is to break the Super League regular season attendance record with these events.
“I am sure Danny McGuire will get a tremendous reception on his return to the city for the Hull KR clash and our first meeting of next season against Castleford will be eagerly anticipated.”
Leeds-born McGuire, 34, ended his lifelong association with the Rhinos by leading them to an eighth Grand Final win against Castleford last month, securing man-of-the-match in the process.
The stand-off – an ardent Leeds United fan – has signed a two-year deal with Hull KR but will quickly reunite himself with his former team-mates at the ground where he helped Rhinos beat Canterbury Bulldogs to win their first World Club Challenge in front of 37,208 fans in 2005.
Leeds have played four such showpieces at Elland Road, the last being the 2010 loss against Storm, but have never before taken a Super League fixture there.
Rhinos first game at Headingley will be on Friday March 2 against Catalans Dragons, but the capacity is expected to still only be around 12,500.
Sky Sports will continue to show two games per week and following feedback from supporters, media and clubs, there will now be an earlier kick-off time of 7.45pm for all televised Thursday and Friday night matches.