Rugby League: Hull KR fight to frustrate the prophets of doom: With little money to reinforce his team George Fairbairn, their coach, faces an uphill task to keep Rovers in the First Division. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
OVER the last two weeks, Hull Kingston Rovers have been beaten twice by the First Division's leading side, Wigan. Those were games they could never have expected to win, irrelevancies in a campaign of grimly serious rugby league; the real business is at the bottom club, Leigh, on Sunday afternoon.

Although Rovers' coach, George Fairbairn, devotes much of his energy to keeping matters like relegation out of the minds of his players, this weekend is a pivotal one for the club. If they lose, Leigh will clamber above them and develop further the momentum of their own roll towards safety.

It seems likely that, under the League's latest revamp, only one club will be relegated this season, but they will drop into a Second Division containing the likes of Highfield and Nottingham. The trap- door is smaller but the drop is more precipitous and into a blacker cellar.

'If I even allow myself to think of that, it brings a defeatism into the place. I can't allow that,' Fairbairn said. 'It's a challenge all right, but that's something I enjoy.'

It is a very different Hull Kingston Rovers now from the one Fairbairn, a rare rugby league Scot from Kelso, joined 12 years ago. Money was no object as Rovers almost doubled the world transfer record to pounds 72,500 in order to bring the Great Britain full-back from Wigan to Humberside.

Money is still no object, for the simple reason that there is none at New Craven Park, despite the sale of the original Craven Park three seasons ago. At the start of this season, the players were given the bad but not entirely surprising news that they would no longer receive contract payments: a system of remuneration for services received (or not) that has proved ruinous to many clubs.

'It was hard for them to accept at first, which I can understand, and it affected the spirit for a while,' Fairbairn said. That would be damaging at any club, but at one surviving, as Rovers did last season, on little but spirit, it was potentially catastrophic.

Gradually, Fairbairn has rebuilt that spirit. Of the many players who felt betrayed by the new economic reality, only one - the tour threequarter, Graham Hallas - was implacably determined to leave and he is now with Halifax.

Within the constraints of having no money to spend, Fairbairn has managed to wheel and deal his way to a side which is certainly no worse than the one that played well enough last season to defy the messengers of doom who were so certain that they would go down.

Rob Hutchinson, a big, raw-boned back who can be particularly difficult to tackle, came in part-exchange for Hallas, and they have even managed to fill their overseas quota.

The days of Rovers sending across the world and outbidding all-comers for players of the calibre of Gary Prohm, Mark Broadhurst and John Dorahy are now a distant memory. Players like Craig McKeough, a young centre from Sydney who came to Britain to play for Widnes, and David Liddiard, an experienced utility back with stints at Oldham and Hull behind him, will shore up the threequarters, however. Thanks to some local businessmen stumping up the cash, Rovers should also have a New Zealand Test stand-off, Dean Clark, in their side by this Sunday.

Then there is the unforgettably named Bright Sodje, a winger whose Offiah-esque credentials extend to having attended the same shcool. Just occasionally, Sodje shows the same lethal finishing ability.

Rovers already have a big home victory against Leigh to their credit this season and Fairbairn believes that they will again prove too strong at Hilton Park. 'We've picked our form up over the last three weeks,' he said. 'We've started to play like we did last season, but we've been a bit unfortunate that we've played top sides like Castleford and Wigan since then. The great thing about us is that we're prepared to work very, very hard.'

Hard work is what it must inevitably be about for Rovers for the rest of the season;

they exceeded all expectations by staying up last season. In fact, given what he had to work with, Fairbairn was many people's choice as the most successful coach of the year. When a new Great Britain coach is required, he would not need much more form on the board to be one of the front-runners in a thin field.

But to pull off the same escape act twice is an altogether more difficult task. George Fairbairn will know much more about his chances of succeeding at 4.30 on Sunday.

(Photograph omitted)