Whitehaven head coach Gary Charlton has the scent of a famous shock as his Cumbrian upstarts seek to dump Halifax Panthers out of the Championship play-offs and take an improbable step closer to Super League.
Haven face Simon Grix’s side at The Shay live on Sky Sports Mix on Saturday (5.30pm kick-off) as the Championship play-offs get underway and are aiming to add another chapter to their fairytale campaign.
When the man known as ‘Charlo’ took over at the club at the start of 2019, the Recreation Ground outfit were in special measures and facing an uncertain future.
Later that year, though, the Marras were celebrating promotion to the Championship as League 1 champions and Charlton was crowned the third tier’s Coach of the Year award.
The 2020 campaign was a write-off due to the pandemic but the current campaign has seen Whitehaven emerge as a respected force after a difficult start on the pitch and boardroom upheaval off it.
Asked if he believed his side can turn Halifax over, Charlton told Rugby League Live: “Oh definitely, we’ve been playing some good rugby.
“The biggest thing which has impressed me this year is our defence and how hard we have worked for each other.
“We’re doing all the little things right – we’re sliding and pushing and nobody wants to be that weak link.
“If we go to Halifax with that same attitude, and have that desire, there is no reason why we can’t beat them.
“We score tries, that isn’t our problem, and we create a lot of chances.
“It’s the defensive side of the game we need to get right and we know Halifax will throw a lot of shape at us.
“If we can come up with all the answers then we have chance of getting a result.
“In terms of our fans, they might be small in number but they’re unbelievably loud and passionate, which is great.
“I think there are five coachloads going to Halifax this weekend and the more fans we can down to games in Whitehaven the better.”
An incredible run of 10 wins in 12 matches saw Charlton’s men snatch sixth place on the final day of the regular season with a stunning 36-22 victory at Bradford – their first success at Odsal since 1964.
Should Whitehaven, who can call on talented performers such as Louis Jouffret and local lads Gregg McNally and Tom Walker, win in West Yorkshire this weekend, they will head to Toulouse in the next round of the play-offs.
The prospect of travelling to the south of France does not faze Charlton in the slightest.
“There is a big bonus for whoever wins this weekend,” said the Cumbrian, who is among the nominees for Championship coach of the year.
“We understand Toulouse are an exceptional team and they probably haven’t had the knocks that other teams are.
“Ourselves and Swinton are the only sides to have played the full 22 games.
“But sometimes you’ve got to sit back and admire teams because Toulouse are a different class.
“Their transition from defence is fantastic and they’re just an exceptional team with some terrific players.
“Featherstone aren’t far behind them, either, and they’re the best two teams in the league.”
John Kear, the veteran Bradford Bulls boss who takes his side to Batley Bulldogs on Saturday in the other Championship play-off game, this week hailed Whitehaven and Batley as two of the division’s great overachievers this season.
“John is a big name in rugby league and has led several teams to glory, so we will take the pats on the back from someone as respected as him,” said Charlton.
“But it isn’t just about me – the whole club is going places and we want as many Whitehaven fans through the gate.
“That’s what we’re looking for because we don’t have a sugar daddy.
“Every penny that comes into the club goes towards keeping the club alive and making us stronger, especially in the playing department.
“Nobody believed we could make the top six, with three games left.
“We knew that we were playing really good rugby and what we were capable of.
“It took until a couple of months of the season to realise that, but it’s finally sunk in that we can compete in this league.
“We now know we’re a good team who can defend manfully and we score some good tries.
“To see the lads in training, they’ve all got smiles on their faces so we’re on a high right now. Long may it last.”
Recalling the size of the task facing him when he took over at the end of 2018, Charlton said: “When we first took over in that first season in 2019, the club was in special measures and struggling financially.
“We had a very limited budget to bring players in, so what we had to look for was local players with the right attitude and commitment, and then cherry-pick the other boys we needed to bring in.
“I think we did a really good job to win the league that year because everything was against us, but in the face of adversity we came out the other end.
“It was crazy to go up as champions and last season obviously got curtailed because of Covid, which was probably a blessing in disguise if truth be told.
“We played the first five games and lost them all because we weren’t physically and mentally tough enough for what was coming our way.
“Yet it gave us a good insight into what we needed for the following season.
“I think most of it has to go down to the players because they have gone above and beyond, especially in pre-season.
“We pushed them really hard and took them to places they don’t want to go too many times.
“Their attitude, enthusiasm and endeavour was in place then and once you add a bit of class to the Cumbrian grunt, we always knew we could do something.
“In 2020, we got let down by a half-back who was supposed to come over, so our spine wasn’t set.
“We made sure we got that right going into this season and we could build around that.
“A lot of credit has to go to the board members who are left now because they have really made a big effort to push this club forward.
“The coaching staff and the players have been absolutely unbelievable.”
What Charlton has done is the stuff of fairytales.
Making this season’s play-offs could yet prove his greatest legacy, no matter what else they may on to achieve.
But only a fool would turn their back on Whitehaven now.
There is just too much energy and too much drive, from top to bottom.
Charlton will be succeeded by assistant Jonty Gorley next season and move upstairs as director of rugby.
Charlton explained: “Jonty is going to take over from me next year and it will be seamless because he’s got the respect of the players and the fans.
“He’s well liked too, so we’re heading in the right direction and hopefully we can keep progressing.
“My main job next year will be to bring players into the club who the coach wants and on the budget that we have.
“We speak to dozens of players and it’s about getting that balance right and bringing them in at the right price.
“We might go through seven or eight players who we think can do a job, but they’re too pricey, so we have to move on.
“We’ll never put this club in jeopardy like it was before. We do a lot of homework on players and make sure that they have the right attitude.
“We do all the background checks on players and are very picky on who we sign – and we have to be because it’s important to sign the right players. The drive to do well here is huge.”