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Featherstone then and now

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George Riley George Riley | 16:55 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010

It probably goes some way to explaining why I'm not married, that a much-needed post-World Cup holiday has been spent filming a rugby league documentary in Featherstone.

Swapping Portugal for Post Office Road may have done little for my outward radiance, or indeed social life, but it's been a powerful reminder of the lust for life there is outside of Super League.

Rovers are cruising towards an unlikely Championship title, led by former Leeds and Great Britain halfback Daryl Powell. They have lost just once all season and will clinch the title on Sunday by beating Sheffield.

A famous rugby league club from a tiny mining town, Rovers also starred in the 1969 documentary 'The Game That Got Away', a fascinating insight into league's breakaway from union and its battle to survive as a sport in its own right. "In Featherstone, they mine coal and play rugby league," bellows the stony voiceover.

fr_getty595.jpgFeatherstone Rovers celebrate Challenge Cup success in 1967

The club's current success offered a perfect opportunity for me therefore to reunite Rovers' 1967 Challenge Cup winners to compare and contrast the '60s game with the modern era. It's a documentary that will air on BBC1 in October.

Sat watching black and white footage from the '60s with former captain Malcolm Dixon, Championship-winning skipper Vince Farrar, the club's most-capped player Jimmy Thompson, joker Kenny Greatorex and Alan Rhodes, it was like the old boys had never left the dressing room. Only the limps, the adjustment of hearing aids and the discussion of hip operations served to remind of the lasting physical legacy of a career in rugby league.

The way the game has changed over the last half century is obvious.

These players were up at 5am to go down the coal mine, and played for an £8 win bonus. Indeed Greatorex describes with a laugh how he was hauled in by the Rovers committee to explain why he had been claiming seven pence for his five pence weekly bus to the stadium on match day.

He played his first game of rugby league having never picked up the ball before. He had never even tried it, let alone trained. A footballer, brought in at the last minute as he was fast, and half the team was stuck down the mine. He stood on the wing, whispering to his centre to tell him what to do, where to stand, where to run. He went on to score five tries.

Physically you would get away with far more back then, the players tell me. As we watch footage of flying elbows and spear tackles, the general consensus is that half the stuff that went on in the '60s has since been outlawed.

The 1960s Rovers team was also selected by a 17-man committee, sitting once a week. "If that was the case today, I'd walk away!", coach Powell tells me.

For amateur clubs like Featherstone though, some things haven't changed. The coaching staff, led by Powell, is full-time, but the players - as in the 60s, train just twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, before a match build-up session on Saturday and game day on Sunday.

Powell's team includes manual workers and even a debt-collector, who I'm assured gets special treatment on the training ground. Half the Rovers side in the '60s worked down the pit.

The 1960s vintage had never seen the documentary of their former selves until we played it to them this week. It was a remarkable and pretty emotional reunion, with Vince Farrar left seething after seeing footage of his then coach Laurie Gant criticising his inability to kick. "I'm scarred by that!," he tells me. "I thought I had the best kicking game at the club."

With Featherstone poised to underline their status as the best current side outside of Super League, what chance gaining a licence to return to the elite? Powell shakes his head and tells me it won't happen. "Certainly not this time," he says.

There are plans for Rovers to redevelop the ground and shift the playing surface back 50 yards to do so. Powell believes there is no Super League future for the club until they do so.

Which brings us on to Rovers' near neighbours Castleford and Wakefield, themselves both acutely aware of a need to prove they are deserving of another Super League licence.

Both clubs need a new Super League-standard stadium, but the local authority insisted last week that it would only provide financial support for one ground. Which presents a clear problem.

shenton_getty595.jpgCastleford's Michael Shenton looks like being a St Helens player next season

Wakefield then announced they would press ahead with their own plans, with Castleford doing the same. The council clearly wants a ground-share, the Tigers are yet to formally rule it out, and indeed were happy to entertain talks to that effect, from which the Wildcats pulled out.

The Castleford-Wakefield rivalry is so fierce there is an obvious need for the clubs to preserve their identity, and does any fan really want to share its home with a rival? But given the financial restraints at both clubs I fear the plan to develop two new stadia is unrealistic.

Speaking of Castleford, the club have finally had to admit defeat in its battle to keep hold of England international Michael Shenton.

The centre almost joined Bradford a couple of seasons back but stayed loyal to the Tigers. Given the Bulls subsequent demise he will probably feel he made the right call, indeed Shenny's stock has arguably risen more since he opted to stay.

The 24-year-old has decided that now is the right time for a new challenge, and although no official announcement has been made it is my understanding that Shenton will be a St Helens player next season.

It is a terrific move for the player, and a great signing for Saints, who in Shenton and Kyle Eastmond will boast two of the great young stars of the British game.


  • Comment number 1.

    just a small point - Powell was signed by Keighley Cougars just before itn came out that Sheffield Eagles were going bust. Then Leeds picked him up on the cheap when Keighley Cougars were unfairly denied their rightful place in super league. All the razzmatazz and "funny names" were started by the Cougars.

  • Comment number 2.

    Featherstone Rovers. We're on our way back to the top! Be it at the expense of Castleford's inwardness, or Wakefield Trinity living in the 60's, we're coming back!!!

  • Comment number 3.

    Fev is one of my favourite away days and it s great to see them doing so well. I do not think it is right to replace Cas' or Wakey with Fev in SL at this point because Fev are not really any better off criteria-wise. Personally, I'd like to see a Cumbrian side in there but you watch it go to Toulouse and we'll all have to fork out for a rip to France!

    Also, great to see the Magic weekend back in Cardiff.

    Looking forward to seeing this documentary. George, would you please remind us all closer the time? Cheers.

  • Comment number 4.

    From my experience, it's the Featherstone Rovers name that is famous. They may be based in the town of Featherstone, but they're romantic appeal affords them support from all over the place. If they did make SL in 2012, they'd be averaging 7-8,000 just by being back at the top. Never mind if they were successful.

  • Comment number 5.

    Very presumptious of you George to say that Featherstone are almost certain to be champions - 1st in the league yes but winning the GF - not necessarily so - some excellent teams in the championship - and i doubt youve seen more than the weekly tv game in this league to make such a big call.

  • Comment number 6.

    Cocokin - I never mention the GF...who knows what will happen there. I'm commenting on their clinching the regular season title.

  • Comment number 7.

    George - I think "Cocokin" is trying to tell you that there is no title unless you win the GF. They are currently cruising towards is the "minor championship" as they call it but you wont see Daryl Powell drinking champers on an open top bus unless they win at the Halliwell Jones.

    Personally I hope they do win it, if FAX dont, as the best team over the season and not just on the day should get the title. Good luck FEV

  • Comment number 8.

    I've got the DVD of that 1967 final Fev v Barrow what a great team despite the result.

  • Comment number 9.

    Should have said the Fev team where great on that day they hammered Barrow,despite the close scoreline 17-12.

  • Comment number 10.

    Bigfellas Stadium ( Post Office Road ) is a far better stadium than Wheldon Road or Belle Vue. It has more seats than the two of them put together. Just need to extend the scoreboard end to get us up to 12,000 and we're ripe for the top flight.

  • Comment number 11.

    Featherstone you need to get to the Grand Final 1st, don't get ahead of yourself,theres a good lad.

  • Comment number 12.

    There's a good lad? I've not come across a team this year who look capable of being at all threatening. Greg, Bristol's most famous Barra fan, maybe 'tis you who should try being a good lad. Give us a game and you'll gain our respect. I hope we do face Barrow at some point. It would be a great game. 46-6 Fev?

  • Comment number 13.

    We will see youngman lol

  • Comment number 14.

    Great article and a good read, just one minor detail. Fev havent won the League Leaders Trophy yet. Denied yesterday by an awesome Eagles display.

    Its good to see Fev at the top where the honest teams belong, but until the RFL scrap this franchising/licencing nonsense, teams like Fev and my beloved Sheffield will never see the promised land. And thats the saddest thing about our game.

  • Comment number 15.


    sorry to be picky but
    you said " an unlikely championship title"- we who watch Championship RL on a regular basis know what that means and its not the league leaders shield -

    Featherstone are as their result prove a very capable outfit but cruising to a title ? - serious contenders yes but nothing more than that and

    after yesterdays result i rest my case-

  • Comment number 16.

    Fev will beat Halifax or Barrow at the HJ in a months time or so.

  • Comment number 17.

    Prepare to fall back down to earth when the Raiders retain their crown.

  • Comment number 18.

    It seems to me that rugby league lost its way when it moved to become a summer sport (to suit sky) and the southern hemispere second raters. Unfortunately since then the english game has suffered, gates have fallen and nationally the game is in decline. Why start "summer rugby" in
    January and miss the best months, ie, mid September to the end of November, when conditions are best for both players and fans.
    Since the introduction of "summer rugby" I have experienced the worst weather conditions in my sixty years as a spectator.
    It may suit Sky schedules but it does nothing for putting bums on seats,(Yes we even have seats at Featherstone!)
    Reluctantly I have to concede that even after finishing top of the championship and even if Featherstone are fortunate enough to win the 'play offs', which despite other clubs aspirations is more than a posibility, we still will not be awarded a 'licence'.
    Widnes, despite their previous failure in 'Super League' and their abismal performance this season, will get the place.
    Rugby League is in decline nationally, thanks to the administrators of the game. It's fit and well in places like Featherstone, Sharlston, Streethouse, Pontefract, Knottingley and even Castleford (Lock Lane),Where its in the blood. Is it not time for the administrators of the game to recognise the contribution that the so called minor leagues
    make to the game by supporting clubs in the games heartlands instead of
    financing expatriate Australians in France, London and Wales?
    It would also be nice if the BBC, particularly Look North, recognised that Rugby League existed outside super-league, even the championship results would, in a small way, promote our wonderful game.


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