In this part, Mark discusses his plans for the Eagles, some of which have undoubtedly come to fruition since then, with the Sheffield club winning the Championship Grand Final in 2012.
The Eagles now share Sheffield United FC’s Bramall Lane Stadium, and Aston is encouraged by what the new venue has done for his team’s prospects, as well as the way his players have responded to this season’s challenges.
How would you assess the state of Sheffield’s season so far, Mark?
I’m reasonably happy. We’ve played nine games and won six of them, so we’ve got a bit of a roll on. We lost our first league game at Bramall Lane to Widnes, but since then we’ve swept everybody before us. So we’re happy there.
When we went to play St Helens I thought we were outstanding – 52-26 and it could have been so much closer. We just made some individual mistakes which cost us. You don’t give interceptions away against teams like that and win games, but it could have been a little bit closer as far as I’m concerned.
The week after though at Leigh we got a lesson in how to play rugby League. They were clinical and we weren’t. We were at sixes and sevens, and the question was ‘Have we fallen in love with ourselves?’ and the answer was ‘yes’, time to get to reality.
It was disappointing though because we had a really good crowd in. We had all the 31 boxes at Bramall Lane sold out that day, we were on Sky and we turned up with a poor performance like that, which we were a bit disappointed with.
So it’s back to basics, back on the field and let’s get physical, as the saying goes.
I know you were pretty disappointed as well about the game at Halifax. What went wrong there?
That was really disappointing. We’d worked hard on defence all week and defensively we were outstanding. But in the second-half our ball control was ridiculous, our completion rate was something like 35 or 37 per cent of our sets. How they didn’t put us to bed I have no idea.
But there was our attitude, our willingness to scramble and put our bodies on the line for each other which was great to see. But we’re disappointed, we scored three tries to two even though we didn’t have a lot of ball. Again, another smack in the chops for us and we needed to bounce back.
The result against Hunslet certainly seemed to show that things had turned round a bit, especially as the Hawks aren’t an easy team to play against, for reasons we won’t discuss here! Were you encouraged by that?
We’ve been pretty physical with the players because I thought they showed a lot of disrespect last week to the backroom staff, to themselves, to each other. They were disrespectful to how we want to play. There were too many individuals coughing up really poor mistakes
So we hammered them again this week and then they came up with a performance like they did against Hunslet, where they beat them 70 odd to 12 and had three other tries disallowed. They were certainly back to the standards I know they’re capable of reaching.
Who’s been playing well at the club?
Misi Taulapapa is getting back to his best, Quentin Laulu-Togagae is fitting in there as well and Menzie Yere’s getting some early ball and causing problems, so we’re encouraged by that.
They’re quality players, but there’s a lot of quality players around them, like Mitchell Stringer. I named Mitch as a prop against Hunslet, he then played in the second-row and I ended up moving him to stand-off. He’s kicked well and he’s put out a ball that any half-back would be proud of to set up Jamie Cording to score by the sticks with not a hand laid on him.
People say he might have a future as a loose forward, but he’s one of the smartest front rowers in the competition. I love smart front-rowers, the days of ‘not so smart’ front rowers have gone.
Andy Henderson is thirty-odd years old but he’s running about like a spring chicken. He’s infectious to have around the place.
What I’ve got here is a real good group of lads who want to play and they want to enjoy it and play with a smile on their face. We’ve had a few hiccups but they’ve bounced back and we’ve got another tough challenge against Dewsbury this week.
We were disappointed where we finished last year in sixth. We want to be as high as we can be up that top six and we want to do better than we did last year, when we got to the semi-final and got beat. So if we can do a little bit better than that we’ll be in the final I’d imagine.
How’s it going off the field as you look to develop the Eagles’ ‘brand’ in a soccer mad city?
The crowd’s are a bit better here at Bramall Lane, and the atmosphere’s better. You can feel a bit more part of it even if you’ve got one or two thousand. the atmosphere’s brilliant. The facility is one of the best rugby facilities in any competition.
It’s a slow burn. It’s a slow process and we’ve always known that. With what’s happening behind the scenes with the scholarships and the academy, all the performance parts are there in place now. What we’ve got to do is drive the attendance up and we’re looking at ways to do that.
I’ve spoken to Hull FC about the re-alignment of their community programmes to try and get more people in. That’ll come. Where we’re at is how do we get that two and a half thousand attendance that you need to get to tick a box for Super League.
All we can is keep knocking away. What I do know is that if we were in Super League we’d get four, five, six thousand at Bramall Lane.
There are people who were Sheffield Eagles fans who now aren’t because of the merger with Huddersfield. I was at a promo we were doing on Fargate in Sheffield city centre not long back. All the boys were there, giving vouchers out and things like that, and there was a man who hasn’t been to see one of our games since we reformed.
This man had never missed a game before the merger. He went to France, he went to Wales, he went absolutely everywhere, home and away, him and his daughter.
I got talking to him and said the merger ripped the heart out of it I asked if he understood the merger, and he said he didn’t really and I don’t think generally people did. This bloke didn’t understand but I explained it to him and he reacted positively.
Has he been back? He said he would, and I would hope he has. We need people like him, as well as the people who live in my village near here and go and watch the Leeds Rhinos now, which is sad. We need those people to get behind us to help us fetch Super League back here.
A lot of people were gutted about what went on in that time period. Can we get back there? Yes, we can. This [Bramall Lane] is the place to do it. There’s lots of exciting things happening. We do what we can on the corporate side of things. Kevin McCabe (Plc chairman of Sheffield United) is very, very supportive of Sheffield Eagles, which is key.
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