Barrow Raiders’ big signing Shaun Lunt has announced his retirement from the game, before even playing a game for the club.
The former Super League winner was seen as a huge coup for the club when they announced his signing last year, but a change in his circumstances away from the game has led the 34-year-old to decide to hang up his boots.
“The change of shift pattern in his new job meant that Shaun was unable to commit to the training demands of the club,” the Raiders posted on Twitter.
“We decided to part company on the best of terms with enough time to bring in a replacement.
“As one door closes another opens and this is a tremendous opportunity for our trialist, Harry Swarbrick, to stake a claim for a permanent position in the squad.
“Harry has been looking very sharp in training and has been eyeing the hooker’s jersey. Training is going really well, there is a real buzz in the camp and this will not derail our promotion bid.”
Elsewhere chairman Steve Neale has said the club will examine the possibility of re-arranging their first home game of the season, if it would allow fans to watch the club in person for the first time in well over a year.
After the early rounds of the Challenge Cup, the league season starts away to Coventry, before a return to Craven Park against Keighley Cougars on Sunday, May 16 – the day before crowds could return under the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans for a roadmap out of Covid restrictions.
“It now looks like we will only have to play Coventry away and Keighley at home behind closed doors,” Neale wrote in his weekly column for the North West Evening Mail.
“Keighley is tantalisingly one day before restrictions are eased so we plan to get in touch with the RFL and Keighley to see if they would consider swapping to the Monday evening.
“It is always difficult with part-time players, but a cash incentive may gain a favourable outcome.
“If not, then the Spring Bank Holiday weekend and North Wales at home could be something of a party atmosphere.”
LONDON SKOLARS have been boosted by the news that they are likely to be able to welcome a crowd into the stadium for their annual Friday Nights Lights game on the eve of the Challenge Cup Final.
This year’s event sees Doncaster travel to New River Stadium on Friday, July 16, by which time fans should be permitted into sporting events following the Government’s roadmap out of coronavirus restrictions.
The pandemic has already seen the Skolars annual Capital Challenge pre-season fixture cancelled this year, so the fact that their second major event in the Rugby League calendar can take place as usual will be a huge boost for the club.
“I really hope things go to plan and we get fans in for that Friday Nights Lights game,” said chairman Colin Browne.
“It would be great if we can because it is a big event for Rugby League in London.
“As a club this year, we really want to build a foundation to try and expand Rugby League in London and be integral in that. We can use the Challenge Cup and World Cup to strengthen that
“Friday Night Lights is an event that we all enjoy immensely and it’s great for the club.
“Having lost the Capital Challenge due to the pandemic already, it would have been a shame to lose this one as well so I am optimistic that it will all come off.
“As the buzz builds towards the World Cup, we want to help attract new fans to this sport, and Friday Night Lights is a great way to do that.
“So fingers crossed everything goes to plan.”
WORKINGTON TOWN coach Chris Thorman has said training will step up now that the club can move into Stage 2 training under the RFL’s Covid protocol.
The squad have been back in training for a couple of weeks now and Thorman has been impressed by what he has seen so far. But more is to come now that they can move into contact training once more.
“We didn’t want to rush getting them back in, so we think we’ve timed it right but proof will be in the pudding,” said Thorman.
“It’s been a long time coming, but in a global pandemic there have been people in far worse situations than we are. We’re just grateful that we can come back in and do what we have always enjoyed.
“Being back together as a group and spending time together is really important, but getting a ball back in our hands and doing the fundamentals of Rugby League has been really important too.
“What we have got into them so far has been very good and as of this month we can fall into some of the nitty gritty work of the game.
“We have made some big changes to Derwent Park as well, adding a gym, wrestle room, physio area and video room and we can now start to use that indoor space too.
“Everything is looking pretty positive and the attitude of the players has been really good. They have all missed it, but at same time we’ve had to taper what we do with them as we don’t want to rush in and get injuries straight way.
“Everything has gone well so far and I’m happy with the progress.
“But now that we can move into more contact-based work, March is going to be key for us so the hard work starts now.”
KEIGHLEY COUGARS coach Rhys Lovegrove believes the later start to the 2021 season will pose a number of fresh challenges for his players.
With pre-season in its early stages and the league season not kicking off until May, the Cougars, and other teams in the league can benefit from doing a lot of their preparations in more favourable conditions than the boggy wet conditions of most normal years.
“That will definitely be a huge advantage,” said Lovegrove.
“It will also be great all round for the spectacle, for the fans and for the players.
“Nothing is guaranteed, but to be able to play from the start of firm, dry pitches on nice days, should allow for a far faster game and more free flowing rugby. It will be less stop start than it is in boggy conditions so I am really excited about that.
“It all adds to the mix. It’s been a long time since we’ve played and the potential to be able to bypass the boggy February, March and April parts of the season and potentially step straight into the higher tempo games.
“Add into that the rule changes and we’re looking at a really exciting product come May
“The volume required from the players with a later start date will also be an interesting challenge to rise to.
“Since it has been moved back there are a lot more back to back games for sustained periods. Usually there are breaks for Cup rounds and there has been some bye weeks. It’s meant that in recent years if you lost in the first round of the cup there was the potential to have up to seven weeks off at one stage. Whereas this year, there is a chance we could play 15 to 20 games straight.
“To go from not playing for 12 months, to playing all games on dry pitches with and the new high tempo rules of six again and no scrums, it’s really going to challenge the guys’ mentality and preparation.
“They will have to make sure they look after themselves on and off the pitch, so it’s going to be a really interesting season.”
Meanwhile the Cougars have become the first professional sports club to incorporate the Progress Flag on their playing kit.
The LGBTQ+ flag includes the traditional rainbow as well as black and brown stripes to represent people of colour, and baby blue, pink and white to represent the trans community.
When Ryan O’Neill and his husband Kaue Garcia took over the club in 2019 the club committed to inclusivity and equality for all.
COVENTRY BEARS will return to training on Saturday for the first time this year, as preparations for the new season step up.
The Bears did get a handful of sessions in before the latest lockdown, but even when they were cleared to return in February, director of rugby Alan Robinson made a conscious decision to delay that to ensure a safe return for all.
“Everybody is chomping at the bit to get back playing and we’re no different,” said Robinson.
“We put a pause on getting back in to training because I felt there was a lot of risks and wanted to make sure we got all the testing in place.
“We would have been asking guys to come from Hull and get to the club for 6:30 or 7pm and then get them through testing, which is another 30-40 minutes, and then training. That would have still been Stage 1 or Stage 1 Plus, when they’d just be working with a ball and staying socially distanced.
“I wasn’t wanting the lads to drive for three hours in midweek for Stage 1 training, when they could be doing the same things at home.
“We’d had four or five sessions before Christmas so we felt we had a good head start on what we were doing, so delaying a return this time wasn’t too bad for us. We’ve already had everyone together and the mental aspect of that was really beneficial. We’d have been in trouble if not had that, and mentally it would have been hard for everyone.
“Getting them back in now means we’re going to get a full eight-week programme to lead in to the start of the season.
“I am confident that will be good enough for what we need and they we’ve now got everything in place to make that a smooth transition for the guys coming back.
HUNSLET coach Gary Thornton is confident that the work the club did in training in December will stand them in good stead when the players return from the latest lockdown later this week.
Wednesday’s return will give the squad just over eight weeks together ahead of the opening day fixture against Workington Town.
Although Thornton would have preferred longer with the squad, he is confident his side will be ready for that first game.
“In an ideal world pre-season camps are usually 12 to 14 week cycles,” said Thornton.
“This doesn’t give us as long as that, but we have to go with what we’ve got. We can’t be moaning about it and have just got to get on with it.
“The month we did in December will certainly help us. We’ll have had a couple of months off after that, but at least we got some good quality work done in terms of some structure stuff. It will just be a case of brushing up on that.
“It’s the contact element that is the most concerning, because that is going to be limited initially, but everyone is in the same boat so we just have to do the best we can.
“I’m just looking forward to getting them back in.
“We will take the first couple of weeks quite gently, before moving up to Stage 2 towards end of March. That should then give us six or seven weeks of contact before the first game.
“I don’t think we’ll be under cooked in May, but I also don’t think we’ll be firing on all cylinders.”
DONCASTER chief executive Carl Hall has said it is unlikely his side will arrange any pre-season fixtures, preferring to keep most of their preparations in house.
“It will be hard for us to get any friendlies in because we don’t start until May so we won’t be able to play a Championship or Super League club, who start in March,” said Hall.
“And there is no point us playing a game against them now when we don’t start for another two months and I’m not sure my coach would want a friendly against League 1 opposition.
“To test us, we’d want that tough challenge and something different to what we’ll face in the league each week.
“But we’ve got a big squad, around 27 players, so we’ll probably have our own internal intense training sessions of 13 v 13. That’s probably all we can do at this stage.
“If protocols allow later on, we have some friends in the game that we can go and do some really good intense opposed training sessions with, or they can come to us.
“That could be an option for us come mid-April. If it’s allowed and would benefit both clubs it’s something we’d look at.”
NORTH WALES CRUSADERS coach Anthony Murray has said this pre-season has been made easier in some respects due to the later start of the season.
As a player, Murray experienced the old winter league, and can see some comparisons to that as the club step up their preparations for the new season, which kicks off in May against London Skolars.
“I can’t wait to get back out there and will maybe only believe it’s happening when the ball is kicked off in that first game,” said Murray.
“But everything is definitely looking a lot more positive than it was a couple of months ago.
“When the sun is shining it always makes people feel a bit more positive and it feels a bit strange when you can turn up to pre-season as spring is approaching and it’s been a nice day.
“When we played in the winter, we’d be in pre-season in June and July, and this year is probably going to feel more like that than the normal pre-season.
“Often there’s been a bit of a panic in our pre-season about facilities. We don’t have our own so we have to book something, but during the winter other teams are doing the same because we need somewhere with lights.
“But going into that stage in March, and the community game not being back yet, that process has fallen in our favour a bit more – so it’s definitely been a bit strange.
“But it will be good to train in some nice weather.”
WEST WALES RAIDERS coach Aaron Wood has said the club will take as much as they can out of the Challenge Cup clash against Widnes Vikings, which takes place seven weeks before they return to league action.
“It will be good to see us play Widnes,” said Wood.
“It gives us, and the boys who haven’t played opposition that high before, the chance to see what that standard is all about. It can only benefit us playing a top tier team, who will probably be pushing for Super League this year.
“After that I can sit back and evaluate the game before the season starts.
“The Challenge Cup is such a prestigious competition that everyone wants to do well in and perform in it and I am confident that we can be competitive in that game. And you never know, anything is possible on the day.”
The Raiders will be boosted for that game with five more players signing on for the season ahead.
Harry Boots, who played in all three games the club played in 2020 is back on board, as are Mike Connor and Fraser Stroud, who have both been at the club previously. Former young Raider Ieuan Badham has also rejoined the club, while former Scarlets and Ospreys rugby union player Morgan Allen has also signed or the Raiders.
The quintet takes Wood’s squad to 32 players.
ROCHDALE HORNETS chairman Andy Mazey has said it’s all systems go when it comes to celebrate the club’s 150th anniversary.
With the season set to get underway at the start of May, and fans potentially coming back a matter of weeks later, the Hornets are hopeful of celebrating the milestone with their supporters.
“We did have things that were in the planning phase late last year and the latest lockdown did impact some of those,” said Mazey.
“But a lot of the events were for the summer and later this year so we’re just going to carry on working towards and planning for them.
“We’re pretty hopeful that crowds will be allowed back in in May and likewise that we’ll be able to host a lot of the functions we have planned for the second half of the year.
“Nothing has changed. Covid has hindered some things, but we still want to make the most of what is a big year for the club.
“There are a couple of potentially big events but we’re quite optimistic we’ll be able to mark the anniversary.”
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