It’s fair to say that the Betfred Championship season didn’t end in the manner Featherstone Rovers would have been hoping as the team missed out on a place in The Qualifiers by just one point. Experienced half-back Anthony Thackeray was understandably disappointed and gave Get ’em Onside an indication of just how tough not making the top four in the second tier will make things in the near future. “It’s been really strange really,” the 32-year-old said, speaking of the team’s end of the the regular season. “We’ve got a really tight knit group and we’re there for each other but it has been difficult. We know now that we aren’t going to have the same sort of squad next year,” he admitted, continuing that “we will probably be able to keep six or seven players… it’s bad really. I’m gutted really after what we’ve been through, it started in pre-season and it’s hard – we’ve got a really good group and it’s going to be torn apart in a few weeks’ time.”
Ultimately falling short by a single point, Thackeray – who, this year, passed three hundred career games – pointed to a poor period around May where the club struggled as a key section of the season which didn’t go the way Rovers would have wished. “Losing to those teams around us has cost us really,” he revealed. “We lost to Halifax and London twice… we probably should have beaten Halifax at Blackpool and London at home a few weeks ago but we just couldn’t turn the screw in the matches. We had a really tough month around the Hull match in the Challenge Cup where we couldn’t get a win under our belts and rugby is such a confidence sport. Losing becomes a habit and it’s a really hard one to break.” The former Hull FC junior, however, was keen as to not lay the blame for the team falling just short on anybody outside of the club. “Really we’ve can only look at ourselves and we are going to have to take it on the chin. It’s strange, we beat teams below us all season but it’s just those teams around us and, honestly, we probably choked a bit and I’m not sure why.”
Losing key players never helps a team and, as happened in the case of the Post Office Road club, losing both first choice halves within weeks of each other to long term injuries is no doubt going to hit a team hard. After starting the season strongly, Tom Holmes and Martyn Ridyard – the form of whom saw Thackeray playing at full back – both suffered season ending blows in the spring and the Hull-born pivot agreed that losing the pair was huge for the club. “Absolutely, the halves are such key players in any team. Rids is such a strong, experienced player and Tom is obviously young but such a good player and losing them two hit us hard,” he explained.
The realisation that ‘The Flatcappers’ had missed out on the top four for the first time since 2015 came just a day after they became only the second team to beat Toronto Wolfpack in a league fixture – the first being York City Knights last season – and the first to beat them in Canada. Triumphing 30-12 over the Wolfpack at Lamport Stadium, the pacy Thackeray admitted that the aftermath of the victory was a bit strange. “It was a bit bittersweet really but it was an unbelievable experience. Spending that quality time together as a team was brilliant. I know it’s still rugby but you’re away from your natural environment,” he explained, expressing the similarities between a pre-season training camp where the team is all together all the time. “It was brilliant and it was probably one of the best trips I’ve had really. To get the win, we were buzzing with that but we knew that, looking at the fixtures, it probably still wasn’t going to be quite enough,” a belief which rang true after Halifax and London beat Rochdale and Barrow respectively to secure top four spaces in the Betfred Championship.
As a Toronto promotion looks increasingly likely this autumn, Get ’em Onside was keen to ascertain a player’s view – and one who had actually travelled across the Atlantic to face them – on the future of Toronto in the sport and whether their presence in the RFL’s structure is a good thing. Of the last point, Thackeray believes they are. “I do think they are good for the sport but the travel is a nightmare. We flew out on the Thursday morning and, while we then had most of Thursday and Friday to prepare, they are still five hours behind us – your body clock gets really messed up,” revealed one possible hurdle for the organisers to overcome in the future. Continuing, and with a nod to future scheduling issues, Thackeray added that “if Toronto get promoted, a Super League side might have to play there on a Saturday and then play a match on the Thursday night in the UK – I’m not sure how that will work. Maybe they will have to do blocks of fixtures again. The fans out there, they were great. You can see how much they love it over there, the atmosphere was brilliant.”
Lining up against Thackeray in the Wolfpack team at the end of July in the final game before the leagues split was Quinn Ngawati, Toronto’s first homegrown player to wear the club’s shirt. “That’s what I think they should be doing,” Thackeray revealed and, agreeing that the similarities in skillset between american football and either code of rugby, he continued that “they have heaps of athletes and, if they invest in bringing those through, that can only be a good thing.” Of the latest expansion venture, the former Dewsbury, Halifax, York and Widnes half rounded up with a nod to the success of Toronto thus far. “I can see why they are doing it and hopefully it does kick off and go well. They’ve only been going a short while but the momentum they’ve got behind them now is massive and they are really well supported – over 8000 people at the Featherstone game. People often try to drag the sport down but we need more people to get behind it. While Canada is a long way for us, hopefully it starts to work.”
Even the suggestion of a rugby league team starting in Toronto would have been seen merely as a pipe dream when Thackeray started his rugby league career but, unlike a fair few of those who compete at the top level and, indeed, against the Hull-born playmaker, he didn’t get picked up as early as many others. “I went on scholarship with Hull FC when I was around fifteen,” the Airlie Birds fan explained. “I didn’t get picked up until quite late, I didn’t go on any junior Yorkshire camps or anything like that, I was probably a bit of a late developer.” Thereafter, he progressed through the ranks and featured for the first team on two occasions, lining up alongside one of the players he looked up to most, Richard Horne. “He was such a good lad, so was Paul Cooke really. I still talk to both of them now and they’re obviously Hull lads, two blokes I looked up to while both of them are very different players.”
Having made a couple of appearances for the club he loved, Thackeray was understandably buzzing but, shortly after that, he was called in for a meeting to find out that he would be moving on. “I got taken into the office and I knew it was one of two things – either I was getting a new contract or I was being moved out of the door. They told me they wanted to sell me to Doncaster… I was shocked to be honest. I was gutted,” he admitted.
That departure from Hull FC came and, barring a short spell in the top flight with Castleford in 2008, his rugby league career thereafter has been exclusively in the second tier. That isn’t to say he hasn’t had a successful one and spells with Widnes – “I learnt more there playing with James Webster than anywhere else” – and Halifax both included a Northern Rail Cup triumph and, with vast experience under his belt at the level, he has been an invaluable part of the teams he has been involved with with coaches speaking highly of his impact. However, Thackeray admitted that, while he was disappointed to not have had more of an opportunity to showcase his talents at Super League level, perhaps he didn’t quite fit with how his coaches wanted their halves to play. “It’s horses for courses, really,” he expressed. Thackeray further added that he could have stayed at a Super League club longer but opted to move on. “I’d have loved to have stayed longer at Hull FC and then at Castleford, I signed a two year deal before our first year in Super League, I was still a young half back and it was tough. I’d played two Super League games prior to that season and I was in and out of the team. At that time, I wanted to play every week,” he enthused. “I opted to take the step down to go to Widnes to get regular games but, looking back, should I have stuck it out with Cas and had more of a go? Maybe, yeah.”
His experience in the Betfred Championship, though, means he has seen the competition develop into what he believes is a really strong one. “You’ve got to contend with people putting lots of money into it aiming to get into Super League and that’s what has made it really competitive, especially the top six,” something which certainly rang true with just one point separating London in second from Leigh Centurions in sixth. “An indication of how tough the competition is is that teams who come down from Super League – like the Centurions – say how tough it is,” he added. Suggesting that there should possibly be a larger Super League to absorb some of the stronger teams in the second tier, Thackeray did add that, while the bottom six in the second tier were some distance away from the top half, the more celebrated teams had to be on their game against their less fancied opponents. “If you’re not on your game, the teams lower down can still hurt you. There is lots of Super League experience throughout the league now,” he explained. When asked about current rumblings about restructure in the league system, Thackeray was cautious. “They mess with it a bit too much in my opinion,” he expressed. “Look at the franchises. When they brought them in, everyone pulled their money – they knew where they were going to be for three years. People knew they were safe so it took a bit of the competitive element out of the game,” something Thackeray noted as a disappointment and something the RFL need to ensure doesn’t happen again.
Now, at 32, the chances are Featherstone’s number seven won’t see too many more structural alterations in what remains of his career. Something new he did experience this year, however, was a spell at full back following the arrival of both Ridyard and Holmes in Rovers’ halves. “It was very different!” he laughed. “Attacking-wise it was really good, you’ve got the freedom to target teams but defensively it’s a different world. You don’t realise how hard it is till you’ve played there.” Elaborating further, Thackeray explained that “you have to organise the defensive line every single play, constantly counting numbers and anticipating what’s going to happen.” While he found the transition tough, he explained how enjoyable it was, especially with the rugby the team were playing. “The way we were playing with the way Holmesy and Riddy were directing us, it was really good to be fair.”
Away from the game, Thackeray has successfully built up his own business in financial services, one which he admits is full on, “the phone never stops ringing!” he laughed. Enjoying that side of his life, then, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that he isn’t of the inclination to remain in the sport when the day inevitably comes when he calls time on his rugby career. “I’ve definitely got a few more years in me yet,” he told. “I’m still quick and, touch wood, I haven’t really had any bad injuries in my time but, with the amount of time you spend away from your family, it has to be worth it.” With two young children and a business which also involves spending time away from home, he admits that he will have to have a look to see what is on the table regarding his future as a player. Certainly, however, he has no coaching inclinations: “no, definitely not!”
In the present and currently enjoying leading the team as one of the many experienced heads in the Rovers ranks, Thackeray wants to ensure he and the team can end the season with a piece of silverware by lifting the Championship Shield. “Us nor Leigh have to win any games to get into that final,” he said, a situation which makes something of a mockery of the ‘every minute matters’ mantra of the Super 8s structure. “We are playing for home advantage and we have seven or eight weeks left as a group and then we’re done and we want to enjoy these last few weeks together to go out on a high,” he expressed, clearly emotional about the situation of the club after missing out on the four.
A reflective individual who acknowledged that he is in the latter stages of a career, Thackeray, while aware of the things he and his team mates often have to miss out on in the name of rugby league, wouldn’t have swapped his time in the game for the world. “Being a rugby league player is a relatively short career and, yeah, you make sacrifices but they are worth it.”
“You have some of the times of your life in rugby league.”
“Some of the young lads at Featherstone are looking to build a career while most of us have got mortgages and bills to pay. It throws in serious uncertainty now.