2003 - Top of the League
A top of the league season
The Eagles managed to finish top of the newly created second division but failed to win promotion on the end of season playoffs.
Starting life in the new second division of the National League meant the club had to deal with new circumstances – potentially lower crowds and lower incomes. Like many other clubs in the league, the Eagles had to run a team with a smaller playing staff budget that meant reduced contractual terms.
Consequently, the club managed to retain a nucleus of 18 players from the 2002 season. The majority were the younger players that Mark Aston had recruited throughout that season, in addition to a few of the more experienced players - Gavin Brown, Jon Bruce, Richard Goddard, Guy Adams Ian Thompson, and Wayne Flynn, players whom Mark Aston believed “had kept the faith”. Aston also decided to stave off his retirement for another year. Full time contracts were awarded to Greg Hurst and Richard Singleton.
There was an exodus of older hands. Squad members who had helped the club survive through the initial years following the merger and rebirth of the new Eagles. The majority left to sign up for their local home teams. Andy Brent, Wayne Freeman, and George Rayner went to Hunslet. Billy Kershaw joined Dewsbury with Gareth Hewitt. Steve Hill, Darren Callaghan, and Scott Rhodes were recruited to the newly resurrected York City Knights, by their new player manager. ex-Eagle Paul Broadbent. Lee Trasler returned to Australia.
However, the Eagles also brought in some new recruits to the squad, Following the establishedprinciple of having a mixture of youth and experience.New signing included:
- Ryan Angus (Unattached)
- Jordan James Unattached)
- Peter Reilly (Castleford)
- Gareth Stanley (Bradford)
- Sam Bibb (Bradford)
- Dale Laughton (Warrington)
- Pat Rich (Oldham)
- Tony Weller (Australia}
- Carl De Chenu (Unattached)
- Tom O’Reilly (Pia and PNG)
- Darren Robinson (Rochdale)
- Damian Whitter (Barrow)
There had been rumours at one stage in the pre-season that the club had been linked with signing the former Great Britain scrum half, Bobbie Goulding, who had just left Leigh Centurions. But nothing came of it.
Mark Aston was also awarded a testimonial year for 2003. A series of events had been organised throughout the year for him that was to end with a Testimonial Match in January 2004.
Dale Laughton returned to the club to join the coaching staff as well as in a playing capacity.
Pre-season training went well. Unlike many other clubs in the two divisions the club did not arrange any pre-season friendlies, preferring the early games of the renamed Arriva Trains National Cup as the vehicle by which players would gain match fitness.
At the start of the season Richard Goddard retained the captaincy, but due to lingering injury, the captaincy was taken over by Guy Adams.
After he broke his arm at the away Cup fixture at Batley, Jon Bruce assumed the captaincy which he held for the rest of the season.
On the eve of the opening games of the Arriva Cup, Mark Aston commented:
Unlike the inaugural year of the National Cup, for the coming season in the Arriva Trains National Cup, each club would play the others in the same group both home and away. In the group stage, the Eagles had been drawn against Featherstone, Doncaster, Hull KR, York and Batley – four National League One Teams and only one from League Two.
The opening game for Sheffield was an away fixture at Featherstone Rovers held in the middle of January. The game was a typical scrappy early season encounter with both teams managing to reach six points apiece in the first thirty minutes. But with Gavin Brown being sin binned soon after for holding down, the home side scored 18 unanswered points.On his return, Eagles mistakes continued with Featherstone scoring two more tries to Sheffield’s one, a Simon Tillyer effort. A rusty Sheffield team had lost the game 12-30.
Before the next Arriva game, the Eagles had a Challenge Cup tie against Oulton Raiders which was held at the Hunslet Hawks ground. For Mark Aston this was a special game as he had played for the club when he was a schoolboy. Eagles dominated the game for the first half hour and were leading 22-4, and looked as though they could score over 50, when the floodlights failed.When they came back on again after the delay, the game was a different ball game. The Eagles failed to score another point, and the game belonged to Oulton, but they could only score a further try. Although Sheffield had achieved a victory, 22 points to 8, the latter half display was described by Mark Aston as an embarrassment and the players had to duly attend an extra training session the next day. Due to poor weather conditions the final game of the month, a home ATC tie against Batley was postponed to a later date.
The first game of February was a Fourth round Challenge Cup home game against Keighley Cougars. This was a must win game for the Eagles. Keighley, on the other hand were looking for revenge, after their 60-0 drubbing at Don Valley the previous season.After falling behind after 4 minutes, by the time the game had progressed to the hour mark, the Eagles were ahead 24-8 and looking set to go through to the next round and then the game changed. Keighley started to narrow the gap, scoring three unanswered tries. Both teams were now level.Fortunately, in the dying minutes of the half, Richard Goddard managed to score a field goal, enabling the home side to progress to the next round, 25-24.
The Sheffield side were looking for a lucrative tie against a Super League side in the Fifth round and they got it, at home to Hull.To maximise their earnings potential from the match, the Eagles Board decided to move the game to the Boulevard, rather than hold it at Don Valley.
Before that game, there were two more Arriva Cup games to play. The first was at home to Doncaster Dragons.Victory was not to be for the Eagles, as the Dragons stone wall defence limited them to not a single try all game, the home side not helping their cause with several knock-ons, letting potential tries go a begging. At the other end Doncaster penetrated the Eagles defence on five occasions running in 26-4 victors, retaining the South Yorkshire Cup. The last game of February was a trip to Hull KR. For the game Aston rested some of the regulars in preparation for the Challenge Cup game the following week to give fringe players an opportunity to show what they could do.That decision nearly worked. Whilst Hull managed to get to a half-time lead of 20 points to 6, in the second half the Eagles outscored the Robins by 18 points to 10. A Hull KR victory by 30 to 24, but Mark Aston was the better pleased of the two coaches.
March started with the Fifth round Challenge Cup game at Hull. In front of more than 11,700 spectators the gulf between Super League and Division Two clearly showed, with Hull running in fifteen tries to secure 88-0 victory. Although outclassed the Eagles players continued to battle to the final whistle, and the Eagle’s share of the gate money certainly helped the club through the rest of the season.
Having been knocked out of one cup, Sheffield had to know focus on the other cup competition and try to secure a victory. They were second to bottom of their group with no points secured. A further four matches for the rest of the month had to be played, games that the Eagles needed to score victories to be able to move into the knockout stage of the competition.
First up was the rearranged game against Batley Bulldogs at Don Valley which took place three days after their Challenge Cup defeat. With the Eagles forwards dominating possession, post-cup blues appeared not to affect the home side. A closely fought first half resulted in Sheffield being ahead by 2 points, but in the second half, a spirited the Eagles defence, and an adventurous attack created inroads into the Batley ranks. The result … an 18 to 8 home victory.
Four days later the Eagles entertained York City Knights at Don Valley. Seeking their first win of the competition, Paul Broadbent’s Knights did just that, defeating the home side. The Eagles had large periods of domination in the game, but failed to convert it into points, losing by 12 points to 32.
The Sheffield side losing streak continued with a visit to Batley Bulldogs. With many first team regulars missing, the visitors slumped to 62 points behind only managing a couple of consolation tries at the end. Losing 62-12, and with the crucial loss to long term injury of acting captain Guy Adams, the only positive thing that Sheffield took away from the game was a Sheffield fan winning second prize in the half time draw.
The next defeat was at home. Facing Featherstone Rovers at Don Valley, the Eagles were dominating the early stages of first half, but following the sin-binning of Andy Poynter, they fell behind to two tries from former player Ian Brown, going in at half-time 4 points to 14 down. The home side continued to improve, but still they could not catch Featherstone, who ran in winners 27 points to the Eagles 8. Despite the defeat, Mark Aston was positive about the performance.
An away trip to York City Knights completed the month, but another frustrating Eagles performance saw them lose by 18 points to 32, rooting them firmly to the bottom of their group. Two matches remained in the competition, matches that the Eagles players needed to address those issues in their play that had resulted in defeat.
Sheffield faced Hull KR in the return fixture at Don Valley at the start of April. The visitors faced a penalty and try blitz in the first half as Gavin Brown ruled the roost, helping the home side to a 28–10 half time lead. The Robins hit back in the second half, but again Brown ensured an Eagles victory, 33-26 with Brown accounting for 21 points.
The final group game was a visit to Doncaster Dragons. Losing 28-6 at half times, the Eagles fought back in the second, outscoring their opponents by 24 points to 10. Losing by only 8 points put them in good heart for the forthcoming League Two season.
National League 2
This was the dawn of summer rugby in the national leagues. Each Team would have 18 games, facing opponents both home and away, to decide the top six clubs in the league. Those top six would then enter the play-offs in a knockout competition to decide who would be promoted to National League One.
Two new clubs joined the new Second Division for 2003 - York City Knights and London Skolars. The Eagles’ target was to get into the top two positions in the league and avoid the sudden death playoffs which awaited those who secured the next four berths.
The Eagles opening game of the season was their first ever trip to London Skolars on Good Friday, a fixture that saw Mark Aston play his first game of the year. He come off the bench when Sheffield had only managed to develop a 6-2 lead after 30 minutes. He left the field when the game was well beyond London’s reach. Victory by 48 points to 2, with a hat trick of tries from Tony Weller and a couple from Gavin Brown. In a post-match interview Aston admitted that he had come on earlier than he’d planned to give his young side guidance around the field.
The second part of the Easter fixtures was a visit from York City Knights, who had already beaten the home side twice that year. But a third one was not on the cards. An even sided match ensued, but York managing to get ahead at the interval, 12-6. Coming on at half-time, Mark Aston’s first intervention led to an Andy Poynter converted try and the scores levelled. Two converted scores later and York were again ahead, but then it was all Sheffield who scored three tries to win the game, despite a near miss from York in the dying minutes, when they dropped the ball on the try line.Eagles were victorious, 30-24.
An away trip to unbeaten Barrow Border Raiders at the start of May witnessed a third victory and the club moved to second in the league. On top from the outset, the Eagles showed flair and creativity to take the points, 30 –12, with man of the match Gavin Brown orchestrating the victory.The Eagles were soaring, but were brought down to earth with a bump, losing their next three fixtures, by small margins. A home visit by Swinton Lions resulted in the visitors winning the game, 23 -18. Ahead throughout most of the game, the home side let the visitors edge ahead in the dying stages of the match.
The next defeat was away at Hunslet Hawks which, if the Eagles had shown more of a killer instinct, they could have won. Ahead 15-9 at the interval, in a closely fought end to end game, the Sheffield side lost out 27-26.
The final defeat came with the visit of Chorley Lynx.Twice the Eagles clawed themselves into a winning position and twice they let Chorley back into the game, losing the game 19-18. By the start of June Sheffield had dropped to third position in the league table.A s all the teams were playing with limited playing budgets, their squads that they recruited were always going to be very similar in terms skills and experience.Hence the majority of games involving the top eight sides were always going to be more competitive than many had been in the previous seasons of the Northern Ford Premiership.
One positive development was securing the signing of very experienced utility player PNG Tom O’Reilly from Pia for the rest of the season. He was on the team sheet for the away game at Workington Town. Winning ways were restored in that game, as O’Reilly had an immediate impact, creating three of the Eagles five tries. Under the direction of Mark Aston, the Sheffield side were 24 points up on the half hour and, with the game in the bag, they tended to sit back on that lead enabling Workington to come back into the game, but the Eagles ran out 29-16 at the final whistle.
Next up was a home game against the unbeaten league leaders Keighley Cougars. The Cougars had secured top spot through their intimidatory style of play, but this was a game that neither side wanted to lose. With three fights, five sin binnings and a couple of pieces of action put on report by the referee, the Cougars were the more rattled of the two sides. By the interval, the Eagles were 24 points up and their ferocious, tenacious, and uncompromising defence ensured the final victory. 29 points to 6.
Sheffield’s developing unbeaten run continued with the visit of Gateshead Thunder. It was not until the Eagles were 12 points down that they got into their stride and put Thunder to sword. This started when Damien Whittier came off the bench and with his incisive and penetrative runs, the home side managed to get ahead 16-12. Both sides were in with a chance, but the next seventeen minutes saw total domination by Sheffield, running in six tries, with Andy Raleigh collecting a brace.Thunder managed to pull back two tries, but Nick Turnbull responded with a further two completing his first hat trick of the season. The result, an Eagles victory, 58-24, retaining the Tolent Cup, and second place in the table. This was the last game that Ian Thompson played for the club as he had secured a career in the police force.
The winning run was brought to a temporary halt with a visit to Swinton Lions at the start of July, who narrowly beat the visitors, 20 points to 18, completing the double over the Eagles. It was an off day for Mark Aston on the field, who was sin-binned at a crucial point for arguing with the referee. But this result was a temporary setback.
With the visit of Barrow Border Raiders to Don Valley, in a closely fought game, where defence seemed not to be the priority for either side, the match was evenly balanced at 42 all.Fielding a Barrow kick, the Eagles moved the ball up to halfway, passing the ball to Richard Goddard who cooly slotted a field goal, securing a victory and the points.Mark Aston ‘s view of the game was:
A visit to York City Knights was next on the agenda.Again, the Eagles lived dangerously. The home side were on a charge up the table but failed to produce enough controlled possession to dominate the game. Leading 14-12 at the start of the second half, by the 60th minute both sides were all square at 18 points each. Then a converted try from Andy Pointer, his second of the game, followed by a Gavin Brown field goal saw the Eagles claim the points 25-18. Tom O’Reilly also contributed two tries to assist in Sheffield’s victory.
At the start of August, Sheffield stood in second place with 16 points, just 2 behind leaders Keighley and with six matches to play. The first of those was the visit of London Skolars.In front of just over 850 fans, a try-fest ensued as the Eagles did a professional job on the Skolars. Four tries for Andy Poynter, a hat trick for Greg Hurst and two tries each for Mitch Stringer, Andy Raleigh and Wayne Flynn, with five other Eagles players claiming tries, to a solitary try for London, saw the Eagles win by a record 98-4, the highest achieved by any Eagles team at that date. Mark Aston’s only regret was that his team did not reach three figures. Gavin Brown also secured another club record, kicking 13 goals in the match.Sheffield had reached first spot in the league, with the same number of points as Chorley and Barrow, the only difference being the Eagles superior positive points difference.
Hunslet Hawks were the next team to arrive at Don Valley, looking to complete the double over the home side. The game was the first Dale Laughton had played since joining the club in his dual player/coaching role. The Eagles started well going in at the interval 14-2 ahead. Despite a fightback by the Hawks, the Eagles comfortably won 32-14, with Darren Robinson scoring a hat trick of tries.
Sheffield were then faced with three successive away trips during the remainder of August. First was a trip to second placed Chorley Lynx, another team looking to do the double over the Eagles and succeeding. Arriving late at Victory Park, Sheffield delivered a below par and ill-disciplined performance. The home side lead 17-2 at half time, soon they increased the lead to 23-2 in the early minutes of the second half. It took the Eagles an hour to breach the Lynx’s defence with an Andy Poynter penalty try. Despite a further converted try for the visitors, Chorley won the game, 30-14, taking the points and the Eagles top spot.Sheffield tumbled to third.
Second place Keighley Cougars were the next to receive the Sheffield team.Led by Jon Bruce and Mitch Stringer, the Eagles forwards displayed a formidable challenge to the home side, yet the Cougars managed to win the first half 10-2. In the following half the visitors secured 90% ball control resulting in three converted tries, taking the game 22-10, and the Cougars spot in second place.
At the end of August Sheffield were at Gateshead Thunder. Gateshead made it difficult for the visitors at times during the game, but a professional performance saw the Eagles take the game by 48 points to 24, with Wayne Flynn and Peter Reilly contributing two tries each.
Sheffield entered the final game of the season in pole position, that was at home, the visitors being Workington Town. In front of a crowd of about 1,000, the Eagles totally dominated, turning a 26-4 half time lead into a final score, 56 points to 11. Contributing to that score, both Tom O’Reilly and Tony Weller scored two tries each, with Gavin Brown contributing 16 points. The Eagles were crowned Minor Premiers by the margin of 69 points over second placed Chorley, avoiding the vagaries of the sudden death aspect of the play offs.
As with previous years in the old Premiership, the top six entered a knockout competition to decide which two of them went forward to the Grand Final. The winner of that Final was automatically promoted to Division One to replace the team that was at the bottom of that Division.
The loser would play the loser of a sudden death play-off between the clubs that finished 8th and 9th in the First Division. The winner of this game was to remain in Division One.Whoever wins the match between the two losers of these games would be in Division One, the loser would be in Division Two.
By securing the position of Minors Premiers, the Eagles had two weeks to prepare for their Qualifying semi-final match against Chorley at Don Valley, whilst the remaining four clubs had to battle it out to see who would face the loser of the Qualifying game.
During the regular season Chorley Lynx had performed the double over the Eagles and were therefore looking to complete a hat-trick of victories.In what was to be Mark Aston and Dale Laughton’s last ever home game, before they both hung up their playing boots, that victory was never to be achieved. The home side’s half backs dominated the game, creating a 16- 0 lead after twenty two minutes. Chorley managed to pull the score back to within eight points, but a Mark Aston drop goal ensured a 17-8 interval lead.
The Eagles were on the defensive for a large portion of the second half, but a converted try by Gavin Brown with 11 minutes to go, followed by one from Tom O’Reilly with six minutes left, cancelling out a Chorley score two minutes earlier, witnessed the Sheffield side progress to the Grand Final, 31 points to 14. Aston dedicated the victory to the Eagles’ fans.
Chorley now had to play Keighley if they were to secure the other Grand Final spot.But that was not to be, as Keighley powered through to the Grand Final the following week.
In the lead up to the Grand Final, Sheffield had two weeks to prepare for the game, enabling key players to recover from injuries.Having beaten the Cougars in all their three meetings in 2003, they had the psychological advantage, but in one off games, that often is not the determinant factor in the outcome of the game.
The Grand Final was played at Widnes’ Halton Road ground on October 5th. It was the first time that such a game had been played using the video referee technology. At that time the technology was in its infancy. Keighley Cougars dominated the first 40 minutes to go ahead 9-4. Their points contained a controversial try awarded by the video referee, Sheffield’s only points coming from the boot of Gavin Brown. The Eagles dominated the majority of the second half with Tom O’Reilly scoring a converted try to give the Eagles a narrow 11-9 lead. Then Keighley were awarded their second controversial try of the game, again by the video referee. This ensured that Keighley won the game, 13 points to 11. There were other dubious decisions in the game, particularly when the match referee awarded a field goal to Keighley, after the ball had failed to go between the posts.
Video referee issues aside, it was the Eagles off key performance that helped cost them the game. They were a shadow of the side that secured the Minor Premiership title. They still had a final chance at promotion but faced Division One Batley Bulldogs away.
An injury hit Sheffield side were down to their last 18 fit players and took the field with three Academy players who had only three first team appearances between them. Batley, who had had a season of playing at the higher level were held initially by a battling display from the Eagles, cheered on by their supporters. The sides were drawing 6 points each, when the game turned on the sinbinning of Andy Poynter.T wo quick converted tries saw Batley ahead at half time, 18-6, Jordan James being the only Sheffield try scorer. Batley’s experience told in the second half, scoring a further 18 points to Eagles 8, tries from Greg Hurst and Adam Caroll.In front of a crowd of 1,040, including representatives from a number of Super League clubs, who were eyeing up a number of Eagles young talent. Batley retained their Division One status, 36 points to 14. The Eagles faced another season in Division Two. Mark Aston had hoped that, on his last playing game, he would go out with a victory, but that was not to be.
A season of initial hope ended as one of disappointment. The goal of winning the League had been achieved, but the team failed at the last hurdles in securing promotion.
However, progress was being made off the field. Fundraising initiatives went from strength to strength. The Goldrush and Golden Gamble lottery, a programme of corporate events. The attraction of more club and player sponsors all raised much needed money to keep the Sheffield Eagles afloat. But one perennial problem remained Attracting more people through the turnstiles.
The numbers attending home games throughout the season saw yet another fall in attendance as the away support from other clubs in Division Two tended to be smaller than those larger clubs in Division One who had visited Don Valley in previous seasons. Overall, the Eagles attracted 13, 937 in 2003, 19% lower than the 17.142 in the previous season. Average attendance for all cup games was 921 (924 in 2002) and 933 for league games (2002 1,106). One of the issues affecting attendance was the availability of Don Valley for Eagles games. Games had had to be switched to Friday nights or late on Sundays with attendances suffering as families found it difficult to get to late kick off games.
The Eagles Board had been prepared for this decline and used other initiatives throughout the season to attract more attendees from the Sheffield public. This bore some fruit, as attendances rose through the season, allied to the club’s successes on the field, to over 1,000 on average, the highest being 1,496 with the visit of Keighley.
Another area of concern was the club’s ability to maintain and develop its fledgling academy.F unding was scarce from external sources, yet the club did manage to run a side, which a lot of other clubs in the National Leagues did not.
An under-21s mini-League did manage to operate, comprising Barrow, Doncaster, Oldham, and Sheffield with the Eagles academy managing to win 3 games during the season, finishing as beaten semi-finalists at the end of the season.
As the dust settled on the 2003 Season what had been a relatively successful season on the field had failed at the last hurdle. Lessons would be learnt, but the immediate challenge was to retain the services of the majority of the club’s youthful squad, a squad whose exploits had been attracting the interests of a growing number of Super League Clubs.
Jordan James (Wales), Carl de Chenu (Ireland), and Jack Howieson (Scotland) all appeared for their respective nations in the European Cup. Andy Raleigh, Jon Bruce, Andy Poynter, and Mitch Stringer were in the Division 2 Dream Team and Mark Aston was nominated, but unsuccessful, as Coach of the Year and Yorkshire Sportsman of the Year.
For more detail about results and players visit the Rugby League Record Keepers Club website HERE.