No rugby league ‘worse than having your teeth pulled out’, says Sheffield Eagles boss
More than a year without rugby league has been ‘worse than having your teeth pulled out’, according to Mr Sheffield Eagles himself Mark Aston.
Aston, whose association with the club stretches back 35 years as a player and now head coach, will begin his fifteenth consecutive season in charge with a Challenge Cup first round clash against
York City Knights on March 21 – a year and one week since The Eagles last played a competitive match.
Twenty players from last year’s squad have been retained, with 10 new faces added. Aston joked the group has had ‘nowhere to sit’ together to discuss what they want to achieve because of Covid restrictions.
He said: "It's been tough. I have been concerned for the players in particular, it's what they live for.
"There’s been lockdown and not being able to see anybody, it's been tough but there has been plenty of people in worse situations.”
On the 2020 season curtailment, vice captain Anthony Thackeray said: “When it’s been your life for so long, going to training each week then playing on a weekend, it was very surreal and strange.
"I just want to get back out there.”
The club’s pre-season training has taken place during the latest lockdown with players broken down into smaller groups to minimise the risk of transmission.
Aston said: “It’s been tough with groups of fours and sixes and social distancing, which goes against what the game is about. It’s a physical, contact sport.
"The big issue for me is that if they don’t get to contact at the right time then the risk of injury is high, but touch wood we haven’t had any injuries.”
With many new faces, Covid restrictions have also hampered team-building efforts, according to 33-year-old club captain Matt James, a veteran of more than 200 RFL Championship matches.
He said: “When we started training and going home I would say ‘What’s that guy’s name again?’
"Over the last few weeks we have started to get to know each other. It was quite tough at first but we are getting there now.”
Thackeray, 35, added: “You need that bond with your team mates as sometimes it’s just about survival.
"When you are in a hole in a game you are going to need that [camaraderie].”
Aston said he is confident he has assembled the right blend of youth and experience for the challenge ahead.
He added: “We have had a couple of tough years where probably the culture hasn’t been where we have wanted it to be.”
Sheffield Eagles will play their 2021 season home games at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium after the Olympic Legacy Park was deemed ‘unsuitable’ due to the lack of facilities as well as not meeting Covid-19 related requirements.
The club hope construction on the 3,900-capacity Community Stadium will be complete ahead of the 2022 season.
Aston said: “The positive is the facilities at the Keepmoat are first class. It allows an expansive game of rugby that we want to put out there.
"It’s sad that we are not back in Sheffield. We have had a couple of rough years but there is light at the end of the tunnel, it’s only been seven years coming.”