9th March 2019, 19:15
Match Preview - Rovers v Eagles
Sheffield Eagles travel to Featherstone Rovers on Sunday afternoon knowing that a victory will put them at the top of the Championship table.
After four wins from four matches, only Toronto Wolfpack had a better record than the Eagles but the Canadians were hammered by Toulouse Olympique on Saturday.
The Eagles have got the better of Swinton Lions, Barrow Raiders, Bradford Bulls and most recently Batley Bulldogs as Mark Aston’s men laid down a marker to the rest of the division.
However, Featherstone provide another stern test of Sheffield’s mettle as they possess talent across the board with a mix of Super League experience and overseas power.
Last Time Out
Despite going 10-0 down in the early going, Sheffield bounced back emphatically to defeat Batley 44-16 at the Olympic Legacy Park.
A week without action, due to Widnes Vikings’ off-field struggles, didn’t deter the Eagles although they were sluggish out of the blocks.
The visitors got on the scoresheet in the third minute thanks to a close-range effort from centre Sam Wood.
Dave Scott was off target with the conversion but soon after kicked a penalty goal to extend his side’s lead to six points.
Dane Manning and Brad Knowles both saw yellow as the teams went down to 12-men and the Bulldogs were the ones who looked the better for it.
Wood was instrumental again as his grubber found its way to Jack Downs who did the rest. Scott fired wide from the tee.
Two tries in the dying embers of the half turned the game on its head and in Sheffield’s favour.
James Glover touched down before Anthony Thackeray sliced through the Bulldogs defence. Pat Walker converted both tries to give the Eagles a slender half-time advantage.
Blake Broadbent and Joel Farrell were next over the whitewash as Sheffield started to gain a foothold.
Manning was sin-binned for a high shot on Farrell and the tries kept coming for the hosts.
Oliver Davies couldn’t be stopped before Ben Blackmore maintained his superb recent form with a quick-fire brace.
Sam Smeaton notched a consolation for the Bulldogs but the final word went to Paddy Burns, who scored directly from kick-off as Batley let the ball bounce.
Featherstone suffered a 44-22 defeat against Widnes Vikings at Halton Stadium last weekend.
In what was a tough week for the club, Widnes – who had almost gone into liquidation – were too strong for the West Yorkshire side.
Liam Hood broke the deadlock for Widnes in what would turn out to be his final game for the club.
Anthony Gelling, Ryan Ince and Jack Owens added their own first half four-pointers before Brad Walker touched down before the break for a 28-0 lead.
Featherstone did get on the board with the first try of the second period through Daniel Smith but there was to be no full comeback.
Sam Wilde and Owens were next over the Rovers whitewash but Harry Newman and Cameron King both responded for the visitors.
Ince and Newman then swapped scores as the game petered out in front of almost 6,000 people.
It has been a brilliant start to the season for Sheffield, with many new faces contributing to the early-season success.
However, two of last season’s squad have stood out from the crowd and on the fast surface of the Olympic Legacy Park – it has been hard for these speedsters not to.
Ryan Millar and Ben Blackmore have starred for the Eagles in the first four matches of the season and their partnerships with respective centres James Glover and Jason Crookes have blossomed.
Both wingers are not shy to take the ball up from dummy-half and when the Eagles have been deep in their own half, such contributions have been vital.
Millar had a tough year in 2018 as an injury at Toronto in mid-season side-lined him for the rest of the campaign.
Blackmore has been an almost ever-present since signing for the club in 2016 and he has gained his reward by becoming a part of the squad’s ‘senior leadership group’.
A boggy surface is expected at the LD Nutrition Stadium tomorrow afternoon so free-flowing rugby may not be at the top of the Eagles’ to-do list.
The wingers may not get as much ball as they want, however their efforts from dummy-half could be a major weapon in the Eagles’ arsenal.
Millar and Blackmore’s opposite numbers tomorrow will more than likely be Luke Briscoe and Jack Render.
Briscoe’s talent at Championship level is undeniable, his try-scoring record is brilliant and he has been a thorn in the Eagles’ side on a few occasions in the past.
Meanwhile, this will be Render’s first game against Sheffield and the Castleford academy product will be looking for a big performance as he stakes a claim to keep his place in the Rovers line-up.
By Dan Fowler, photo by Alex Coleman