Eagles' soaring ambition

Dave Hadfield explains why Sheffield can gain from the Super League plans
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The Independent Online
SHEFFIELD EAGLES play what will surely be their last game of this torrid rugby league season in their Premiership first-round tie at Wigan today. They have done startlingly well to get even as far as the top eight play-offs, but they stand to do considerably better in the future as one of the clubs who will emerge from the Super League confusion the stronger.

Gary Hetherington, the Eagles' founder 11 years ago, is soft-pedalling on the issue of merger with Doncaster. But, after all the talk about clubs amalgamating, the Sheffield-Doncaster link-up, mooted even before the Super League plans, is the only one which might still happen.

"It is on ice at the moment," said Hetherington. "There is still a local consortium on the scene and, if they could keep the game going in the town, I would gladly stand back. It would need a new stadium in Doncaster, at which half the home matches could be played, to make a merger work. And there is the question of a petition from Doncaster fans opposing a merger."

Hetherington, general manager, coach and chairman at Sheffield, has approached 12 Doncaster players about joining the Eagles. "But any other club could do that, because Doncaster are out of business," he said. The two outstanding players have already been snapped up, Vila Matautia by St Helens and Wayne Jackson by Halifax. The addition of some of the other more useful players from Doncaster would give Sheffield formidable depth in their squad.

Hetherington has already got one thing he wants out of the Super League. Almost without debate, the summer season, of which he has been a vociferous proponent, has ridden in on the back of the restructuring, which, incidentally, looks uncannily similar to the plan which Heth-erington launched himself earlier this season.

"Summer rugby was coming anyway, but the Super League gave it a kick forward," he says. "Naturally, we are delighted. We have a 'summer' stadium and playing in summer will help us establish our own audience."

The relative success of Sheffield over their first 11 seasons is still not attracting crowds large enough to fuel Hetherington's ambitions at the city's Don Valley Stadium. Financial prudence is still the order of the day. Last month, he sold the first player he ever signed, the Great Britain back Daryl Powell, to Keighley. At £135,000, that was good business rather than necessity, Hetherington says, but it has put Sheffield into the black.

Hetherington must hope that he can replace Powell as effectively as he has last year's big-money departure, Mark Aston. Ryan Sheridan, still only 19, has now played almost 100 first-team games and has stepped into Aston's old scrum-half position with admirable assurance.

Sheffield will have two teenaged half-backs at Central Park today, with Carl Briggs in Powell's stand-off shirt. "He is ahead of Daryl at the same age," says Hetherington. "That has been the best aspect of the season - the way so many young players have come through."

Sheffield will probably not win this afternoon - although they did achieve their first-ever victory over Wigan in the league last season - but they are managed astutely enough to become one of the winners from the game's recent confusion and upheavals.