Eagles need to wing it this year and look to future

Sheffield Eagles have found being a full-time club somewhat difficult in 2016, it is fair to say.

Form has been poor, and the team has looked frustratingly flat at some stages. A 60-22 hammering from Halifax at the weekend is just the latest in what feels like a long string of disappointing results this year.

They have lost 11 Championship games this season, winning only five, and their chances of making the Middle Eights have faded away to almost nothing.

The team was 45 minutes late to the Summer Bash, a combination of poor fortune and a semi-professional attitude to planning, which embarrassed the club and the showpiece event.

They are playing at a university sports park in front of temporary stands. A venue where they have shared changing facilities with local amateur rugby union, soccer and lacrosse teams on match days.

The city of Sheffield itself never seems to really warm to the club, and having no home is affecting their support and chances of developing a proper club identity.

Somehow, that seemed to sum up where the club currently is – neither quite one thing (a fully professional, full-time outfit) or the other (a stable, if unremarkable, part-time club).

They have been denied academy accreditation, and the current campaign seems to have been defined by disappointment generally.

Certainly, the recruitment policy put in place by Aston and co ahead of the current campaign seems to be a gamble which has misfired.

Missing out on the signing of Beau Henry has left them light in the halves, with Cory Aston looking not quite ready for the responsibility of taking the team around the park yet.

The loss of players like Pat Walker, Dom Bramabani and Misi Taulapapa – experienced Championship players, hardened by years of experience, has also hit Aston’s squad hard.

Aston himself has questioned his players’ spirit and commitment, and has expressed bafflement that they have been so poor in defence.

Some seasoned Sheffield rugby league types have questioned whether there was the financial resource available for the club to go full-time.

Other full-time clubs, Leigh and Bradford in particular, have made a point of signing plenty of players with Super League experience.

The Eagles’ squad, in contrast, looks a little thin on genuine top-flight experience, with only really Scott Wheeldon and Keal Carlile having spent significant time in the full-time ranks of the top flight before joining Sheffield.

The fixtures leading up the split are also testing. Sheffield have to play all of the current top four teams in their remaining games – Leigh, London, Batley and Featherstone – and must also travel to Whitehaven in the final fixture before the split, which is never easy.

But, long term, the picture is not all bad, and Eagles fans should not be too worried about the future beyond this year. Mark Aston is one of the shrewdest operators in British rugby league, and rising from the ashes is something in which he is a little bit of an expert.

This season always felt like a holding operation, really. The new ground will not be ready until 2017, and one senses that the club is holding its breath and hanging on for that to happen.

But, in a sense, that means that the club is making itself something of a hostage to fortune, in that there is a big gamble on the new ground working as intended, and helping to draw in crowds, tempt better players and be a proper base for the club.

Sheffield are used to rolling the dice. They will hope that Aston’s luck holds once again, and a six comes up next year.

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