James Webster can’t wait to go head to head with “the king of the cup” when his new-look Featherstone side host Bradford on Sunday.
Bulls coach John Kear led both Sheffield and Hull to Wembley glory, and in 2019, piloted his current club to a memorable Challenge Cup sixth-round win over Leeds.
Webster is aiming to ensure Bradford fall at the first hurdle this season, in what is a repeat of the 1973 final, which Rovers won 33-14.
But he accepts he has his work cut out to claim success in a clash he believes will provide a pointer to the competitiveness of the Championship this year.
“I think the division’s going to be ultra strong,” said the 41-year-old Australian, who took the Featherstone reins in October 2019.
“So many of the sides have recruited strongly, and I reckon it’s going to be more fiercely-fought than ever before.
“You’ve got Toulouse and London, who are both full-time, Bradford with their hybrid system, and ambitious clubs in York and Halifax.
“And the others, such as Batley, have also stepped things up, so we’re looking at a really tough set of fixtures.
“I think we’ll get a taste of what’s to come with the first round of the Challenge Cup, and we’re really looking forward to it.
“I’m up against the king of the cup in John, and it’s going to be a great chance for the pair of us to see where we’re after a long old pre-season.”
Webster, whose side have had warm-up matches against Oldham and Batley, has made a string of additions of his own.
Among them are Samoa international halfback Fa’amanu Brown and former Super League men Kris Welham, Craig Kopczak and Junior Moors.
“We’ve been able to add some experience and also some young, hungry players who are aiming to have a long Rugby League future,” explained Webster.
“Without the dual registration avenue this time, we needed some numbers, because history shows you will probably use 30-odd players over a season.
“You will always get situations you have to deal with, and I now have the opportunity to mix things up over the course of the year.”
Brandon Moore is planning to put the Super League experience he gained with Huddersfield last season to good use as HALIFAX chase a return to the top flight.
With the Championship campaign curtailed due to Covid, the high-energy hooker impressed in four appearances on loan to the Giants, writes Ben Roberts.
Now the one-time Castleford man, who moved to The Shay in 2016, is back at Halifax, and having agreed a new two-year contract, was made skipper in succession to Scott Murrell, who had moved to Keighley.
“I think that anyone playing the game wants to do it to the highest standard, and I got that chance at Huddersfield,” said Moore, who donned the armband for the first time in Saturday’s pre-season game against Oldham.
“Now I want to help Halifax get to Super League and I think that with the quality we have brought in adding to what we already have, we have put together a strong side, and it will hopefully be a great year for us.”
The Cumbrian, who is going into his sixth season with Halifax, says he was more than happy to be handed the captaincy.
“It’s an opportunity to further develop both as a player and a person and I am looking forward to it,” he said.
“It’s a huge honour and one that came unexpectedly, so I would like to thank (coach) Simon Grix and the club in placing their trust in me. It is something I’m immensely proud of.
“Personally, my aim is to be consistent in my performances week to week, in training and in matches.
“I know what’s expected of me as a player and I’m looking forward to working hard and leading by example.”
Halifax host Batley in the first round of the Challenge Cup on Saturday and Moore added: “We want to be hitting the ground running.”
YORK CITY KNIGHTS coach James Ford says he was “really proud”, both to have coached the ambitious club in the first Rugby League match at the new LNER Stadium, and of his team’s performance in their pre-season match against Hull.
The Super League visitors won their first game under new Australian coach Brett Hodgson 28-22 on Thursday, but had to withstand an attempted fightback by Ford’s reshaped side after being 22 points ahead after an hour.
Hull were dominant in the opening period as Adam Swift, Mahe Fonua, Carlos Tuimavave and Manu Ma’u touched down, with Marc Sneyd adding three conversions, and scored again through Chris Satae in the second half, with Ben McNamara adding the goal.
But York, whose first try at their new home came after 30 minutes through Riley Dean, with Kieran Dixon converting, had the better of the final 20 minutes, when Ben Jones-Bishop, Liam Salter and Tyme Dow-Nikau crossed and Brendan O’Hagan kicked two goals.
The Knights have come a long way since having to play League 1 games at both community club Heworth and York RU’s Clifton Park in 2015, when Ford became coach, and coming close to going out of existence in 2016, before current chairman Jon Flatman led a takeover.
The new 8,500-capacity stadium is shared with York City Football Club, and Ford said: “It meant a lot to finally be able to coach the team here.
“I’m really pleased for people like Jon Flatman and everybody associated with the club who have overseen the last couple of hurdles to get us to the ground.
“It’s a great facility, and now we can start to focus on the future of a club which has massive potential.
“I’m thankful to be the coach, and after the chairman’s help in putting this squad together, we just need to do our bit on the field.”
While Hull handed a debut to Josh Reynolds, their high-profile signing from the NRL, York fielded another former Wests Tigers halfback, new recruit Brendan O’Hagan, and Ford was happy with what he saw from the 22-year-old from Gosford, North of Sydney.
“I thought he organised well, kicked well and showed a willingness to work hard,” said Ford of the former New South Wales Under 20s player, who started at stand-off alongside Dean, the scrum-half who has come in on loan from Warrington.
York are back in action on Friday, when they face Sheffield in a Challenge Cup first-round tie at the Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster.
SWINTON LIONS coach Stuart Littler says prop Jose Kenga already has a recovery schedule in place after rupturing an Achilles tendon during a pre-season match.
News of the injury is a blow as the Lions prepare for their home Challenge Cup first-round tie against Newcastle on Sunday.
The 25-year-old started the clash with Bradford on the bench and had been on the pitch at Dewsbury’s Tetley’s Stadium for only two minutes when he was forced off.
Now Swinton are resigned to being without the popular former Keighley and Hunslet player for “several months”.
Littler, whose side beat the Bulls 26-22, said: “Sadly it’s not great news from the hospital regarding the injury to Jose.
“There is always a risk in any rugby match of a player getting injured due to contact and the physical elements of the game.
“But to be fair in this case, having looked back at the video, and it’s hard to determine what actually went wrong.
“We have been in constant contact with Jose and we have already started to formulate a rehab programme to get him back up and running.
“He will now focus on getting his recovery right with our medical team, who have been outstanding throughout pre-season.
“Things are sometimes sent to test us. But by focussing on the positives it allows us to build resilience to adversity in challenging times.
“We are a close team and we will all support Jose to get back on that field as soon as possible.”
Swinton signed Kenga ahead of the 2019 season, when he made 16 appearances. Last year, he featured three times before the Championship season was shut down.
A Hunslet Warriors product, he played development rugby with Sheffield and Dewsbury before making his senior bow while on loan to Gloucestershire All Golds from Hunslet in 2016.
Simon Finnigan says there is no way WIDNES VIKINGS will take Sunday’s Challenge Cup first-round tie against League 1 West Wales in Llanelli lightly.
The Vikings coach is desperate to clinch a home second-round tie against Whitehaven or Dewsbury the weekend after.
That would maintain momentum ahead of the Easter Sunday (April 4) Championship opener away to Newcastle, the club he left to join Widnes in November.
Finnigan, who previously worked on the coaching staff at Leigh and Toronto, guided Newcastle to a 68-6 win at West Wales in August 2019.
Last season, the Stebonheath Park side suffered an embarrassing 30-8 home defeat by community club Underbank Rangers in the Challenge Cup.
But after seasons of struggle, the Raiders have recruited strongly, and could hand a debut to former Wales and British and Irish Lions rugby union fly-half Gavin Henson.
Also on board is former NRL, Super League and England halfback Rangi Chase, the 2011 Man of Steel, who has joined from Doncaster.
“It’s not just those two, because West Wales have made a real effort to bolster their squad,” said Finnigan.
“And the fact that they are even playing in the Challenge Cup this time is a sign of the ambition being shown down there.
“We will give them due respect, prepare properly, and be ready for a tough test and the end of a long journey.
“On the positive side, a trip like this can be invaluable in terms of gelling a group of players.
“We want to go there and make sure we hit the ground running, and the prospect of a home tie in round two is a great incentive.”
While Widnes haven’t had any warm-up matches, Finnigan’s team faced Super League Warrington in an opposed training session at the Halliwell Jones Stadium on Wednesday.
BRADFORD BULLS coach John Kear believes speedy back Jack Sanderson is a significant addition to his squad.
The Bulls have snapped up the 22-year-old, who made three appearances for Castleford last season, on a one-year deal.
Sanderson, who scored a Tigers debut try in the 31-19 defeat by Huddersfield in September, has also played in the top flight for Hull, and in League 1 for Doncaster.
The 6ft 2in flyer can take any position along the backline, adding to his appeal in the eyes of Kear, who included him in his squad for the warm-up game against Keighley on Saturday, which Bradford won 22-18.
“I am absolutely delighted,” said Kear. “Jack is a player who spent time at Doncaster in League 1 and has also got Super League experience and I always thought he was pretty good.
“When we spoke to Jack and his agent I jumped at the chance to bring him in – I know full well he sees this one-year deal as an opportunity to earn a longer-term stay.
“He’s big and fast. Having done my due diligence on him and speaking to people within the game, everyone has spoken of his positive attitude and how well he applies himself.
“He can play one to five and can also kick goals, so there is a number of plus points with bringing in a player like Jack. He adds further competition for a starting jersey.”
Bradford have also taken prop Anthony Walker, who has played under Kear for Wales, on trial.
The former St Helens and Wakefield man, 29, has been cleared to start playing again after he was forced to retire in 2017 when scans revealed a brain abnormality which had been present since birth. He scored a try against Keighley.
Meanwhile Bulls scrum-half Jordan Lilley has been handed a two-match ban for grade B dangerous contact during the pre-season game against Swinton.
The former Leeds player is out of the Challenge Cup first-round game at Featherstone on Sunday, and should Bradford win, the second-round tie at home to Halifax or Batley the following weekend.
If the Bull are beaten by Featherstone, he will miss the Championship opener away to Sheffield on Easter Sunday, April 4.
NEWCASTLE THUNDER coach Eamon O’Carroll believes games against Whitehaven and Swinton will provide the perfect preparation for the challenges of the Championship.
Thunder, preparing for life in the second tier after being elevated from League 1 to fill the vacancy left by Leigh, hosted Haven in a pre-season match on Sunday.
And this Sunday, O’Carroll takes his new-look team to Heywood Road to face Swinton in the first round of the Challenge Cup.
Up for grabs is a home game against Oldham or Barrow in the second round the weekend after.
Thunder, whose new faces include former Huddersfield prop Ukuma Ta’ai, play their first Championship match since 2009, when they were knowns as Gateshead, at home to Widnes, coached by O’Carroll’s predecessor at Newcastle Simon Finnigan, on Easter Sunday, April 4.
“The momentum is building, and it’s exciting,” said former Wigan, Hull, Widnes and Ireland prop O’Carroll, who was appointed at Kingston Park in December after working as right-hand man to Catalans Dragons chief Steve McNamara.
“We know it’s a big step up going into the Championship, and while we have recruited well, with a good mix of experience ad youth, to add to the very solid squad I inherited, the Whitehaven and Swinton games will show up the areas we need to work on.
“Whitehaven made the move up from League 1 in 2019, and while last season obviously didn’t last long, it gave them a platform to build from.
“Swinton have been there for a god few years now, and all credit to their coach Stuart Littler, who has done a great job.
“I played alongside Stuart for Ireland and I also got the chance to work alongside him when he became the national coach, which was a great experience.
“They have a solid squad full of committed players, and it will be a really good test for us and one we’re all looking forward to.
“We’ve got through some good work in pre-season, but now we need to transfer it onto the pitch.”
WHITEHAVEN coach Gary Charlton wants his players to carry on smiling as they prepare for the club’s first competitive clash in more than a year.
Anticipation is high ahead of Saturday’s Challenge Cup first-round meeting with Dewsbury at the Recreation Ground.
“It’s been a long time coming, you can sense the lads are hungry for it, and it’s great to seem them looking happy and eager,” he said.
“It’s great to feel the buzz at training, and with the demands of playing rugby at this level, it’s important to enjoy what you’re doing.
“Dewsbury have been a Championship side for quite a while now, and this will be a good test of where we’re at ahead of the league season.”
Much as Charlton respects the Rams, he wants to avoid a hat-trick of competitive clashes against them.
The Yorkshire side were Haven’s last opponents pre-lockdown, winning 24-6 in the Championship clash in Cumbria on March 8 last year.
And first up for Charlton’s men in the league this season is an Easter Saturday game at Dewsbury on April 3.
Should Haven beat Lee Greenwood’s side in the cup, they would have a second-round tie at West Wales or Widnes the weekend after next.
DEWSBURY RAMS will be without former Super League secondrow Chris Annakin for their Challenge Cup first-round tie at Whitehaven on Saturday.
The experienced former Wakefield man must serve a one-match ban for a grade B shoulder charge during the pre-season match at Batley.
Coach Lee Greenwood is hopeful new Samoan centre Bayley Liu will be available after a suffering concussion during the derby clash.
OLDHAM coach Matt Diskin was pleased to name new signing Shaun Pick in his squad for Saturday’s pre-season match against Halifax at Bower Fold.
The ex-Toronto forward missed the previous warm-up game against Featherstone, another former club, with a calf problem.
Diskin is keeping close tabs on long-serving prop Phil Joy, who has a thigh injury, as he prepares for Saturday’s visit of Barrow in the first round of the Challenge Cup.
Joy’s fellow frontrower Tyler Dupree missed the Halifax clash with an ankle niggle, but it’s hoped he will be available against Barrow.
“We’ve had one or two getting knocks or pulls, but after a year without any matches, you have to expect those sort of issues,” said Diskin.
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE are taking a look at Guy Armitage, the ex-England Under 20 rugby union centre who switched codes with London Broncos in 2019 after playing for their landlords Ealing Trailfinders.
The 29-year-old scored three tried in five games before lockdown last season, having made two Super League appearances for the capital club the year before, when he had loan spells at both London Skolars and Doncaster.
The former London Irish, Wasps and London Welsh player had a spell at French top-flight union side Toulon, but was unable to break into the first team.
He was set to join Ottawa, only for the move to be scuppered when the Canadian club deferred their entry to League 1.
Armitage then signed for Villefranche in the French second tier, but that competition has not yet resumed due to Covid.
Toulouse travelled to Catalans Dragons for a warm-up mach on Saturday.
BATLEY BULLDOGS are hoping knowledge is power as coach Craig Lingard plots a Challenge Cup first-round win at Halifax on Saturday.
Three of his eight closed-season signings, winger Jodie Broughton, halfback Tom Gilmore and hooker Ben Kaye, are former players at The Shay.
Lingard will be hoping their familiarity with Halifax helps provide an edge in the battle for a second-round trip to Featherstone or Bradford the weekend after next.
Lingard, whose side have prepared for the new campaign with games against Dewsbury and Featherstone, is pleased with his new-look squad.
“We’ve got a bit of depth to get through any problems caused by injuries or Covid cases,” he said.
SHEFFIELD EAGLES coach Mark Aston has urged supporters to take the opportunity to check out his new-look side via The Sportsman.
The sports news and features website will screen Friday’s Challenge Cup first-round tie against York at the Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster.
It’s the first competitive match of the 2021 domestic season, and long-serving Aston smiled: “Rugby League is back.
“We can’t wait to get going and while we don’t have fans back in grounds yet, it’s great that a wide audience can watch our match.”
The winners of the tie will visit London Broncos or Keighley in the second round the weekend after next.
LONDON BRONCOS coach Danny Ward says he’s happy to go into Saturday’s Challenge Cup first-round game against Keighley without having played a pre-season game.
“Given our location, the difficulties outweighed the benefits,” he explained.
“We’d most likely have had to travel, it would have been a fair distance, and that would have meant getting on a coach with the associated protocols to factor in.
“We looked into it and decided the logistics were too much, so we’ve focused on tailoring our training to try and provide plenty of the kind of contact work we’d have got through playing a match.”
Ward is expecting a tough test from Keighley, who pushed Bradford close before losing Saturday’s pre-season clash 22-18.
“They’re one of the stronger League 1 sides and have made some impressive signings such as Scott Murrell, so it will be a good test for us,” he added.
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