Newcastle Thunder coach Simon Finnigan will be an excited spectator on Monday evening when the Coral Challenge Cup draw takes place at Rochdale Hornets’ Crown Oil Arena.
The North East club, along with the other ten League 1 clubs, will enter the competition at the third round stage, giving them their first competitive fixture of the year, a week before the League campaign kicks off.
“I absolutely love the Challenge Cup,” said Finnigan.
“And I like the fact that for us, this competition comes around first.
“Whatever round you’re playing it, you do get excited about it and to have that to start off the year is great.
“If we get the win, we play in it again three weeks later. The earlier final means the earlier rounds come around a lot more quickly now, which keeps the excitement going.
“It has always been a special competition. And now the final is earlier, it feels like it stands alone more from the Grand Final, which makes it more special.
“Ideally I’d just like a home tie, because these are the game you like to play on your own patch, in front of your own fans.
“If that doesn’t happen that’s fine because I still like the fact we might have to go to an amateur club and play on their patch.
“That’s never easy; they are always very passionate. Look at when I was at Toronto, they nearly got beaten by Siddal. Before that game, no one would have said it was going to be as tense as it was, so that proves it.
“So whether we draw an amateur club or another League 1 club, it will be a test and we’ll just take whoever we get.”
NORTH WALES CRUSADERS coach Anthony Murray has said recent new recruit Ryan Millington was able to settle into the club quite quickly, despite missing a large chunk of pre-season.
The 33-year-old left the Wrexham club to join Rochdale Hornets mid-way through the 2018 season, but linked back up with the Crusaders earlier this month.
“I am really pleased Ryan has decided to come back to us,” said Murray.
“Ryan can play in varied positions from hooker to prop, and from 13 to halfback, so it is great to get someone else in with a huge utility value.
“That fits in really well with the squad we’re trying to build this year and I’m looking forward to seeing him out there for us again.
“He’s been playing rugby union throughout the winter and has kept himself fit, so he’s been looking after himself. That, along with the fact he knows quite a few of the players and how I operate as a coach, means he should be coming into the squad ready to go.
“We’d still like to add another player in, but we’ll wait and see who become available.”
HUNSLET have added further strength to their pack with the signing of experienced prop forward Alex Rowe,
The 34-year-old Londoner, who had a six-season stint at Batley Bulldogs, spent last season with Newcastle Thunder. He has also played for London Broncos, Castleford Tigers, Doncaster and Sheffield Eagles.
“It’s a massive boost for us to have a player of Alex’s experience and ability join us at this stage of the season,” said Hunslet coach Gary Thornton.
“He’s a big robust prop forward and a handful for any defence.
“I’ve been in contact with him for a while. We almost got him on loan last year until Newcastle pulled the plug on the deal, so I’m really pleased he has now signed following his release from Thunder.
“He has loads of experience, mostly at Championship level, so he will complement our pack really well. He is well known and well respected in the Championship and League 1 and hopefully he can reproduce his destructive running and big defence for us in the coming campaign, and add to what is already a pretty formidable pack.”
Thornton has also handed a contract to trialist Anthony Boardman, who was previously with NCL club Dewsbury Moor Maroons, before approaching the club looking for the chance to take his game to the next level.
“It’s really pleasing when you get someone coming in and looking for an opportunity to prove themselves, and that’s exactly what he has done,” added Thornton.
“He has worked really hard in the pre-season, showed up well in training and the warm-up games, and has earned his opportunity to play at a higher level, and deservedly so.
“He is an honest and hard-working lad and realises he still has a lot to learn, but his willingness and eagerness to be better and improve himself means he will be a valuable asset for us in both wing and centre positions.”
WORKINGTON TOWN will continue their pre-season preparations with opposed training sessions against two local amateur clubs this week.
Following games against Whitehaven and Barrow, Town coach Chris Thorman will use the sessions to fix up any issues he noticed during the games, and admits he would like more training days like this.
“For us it’s all about being ready for the kick-off in February now,” said Thorman.
“We’ve already done some team-opposed work with some local amateur clubs, and we’re going to be doing some more this week.
“We have Egremont coming to the session on Thursday and them Seaton on Saturday. It’s more team-based stuff for us but we’ve already done a lot of that in pre-season anyway.
“Pre-season games, for me, are a necessary evil. We picked up a few knocks and niggles and ideally I wouldn’t play them. Instead I would have more structured, opposed training sessions like these.
“You probably learn a lot more from them and you can go over scenarios quite specifically.
“But we’re in the business of playing games and that’s what we have to do.
“There is a financial aspect to consider for clubs as well, but we get just as much out of these opposed sessions as we do in a trial game.
“The emphasis is going to be peaking at the right time for round one, but we have a Challenge Cup tie to be ready for as well before that.”
KEIGHLEY COUGARS coach Rhys Lovegrove has said the club will continue to back Jordan Aitchison as he takes time out of the game to undergo surgery for Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome.
The heart condition, which was discovered through mandatory screening, is treatable with surgery and Aitchison is expected to return to the squad later this year.
“This is an extremely difficult period for Jordan and I will fully back him throughout,” said Lovegrove.
“Jordan showed last season the ability he possesses, and I have no doubt that he will be back to his best once again following the completion of his treatment.
“The boys are all supporting Aitch and that shows the collective team spirit that this group has going forward into the season.
“I’d like to place on record my own personal thanks to the Doc, Richard, for discovering this condition and allowing Aitch to receive the appropriate treatment that will allow him to continue his blossoming Rugby League career.
“The Cougars as a club will fully support Jordan, from the board of directors through to Jordan’s coaches, team-mates, the backroom staff and our fantastic supporter base through this difficult period in his career and life.”
COVENTRY BEARS have appointed a leading coach from the local amateur set-up to their backroom staff, with Ben Whincup coming on board as assistant coach.
Richard Squires, who has been helping out at the club for the last 18 moths, also steps up to an assistant coach role.
“I will still be managing the rugby side of things, but on the coaching front, Ben and Richard are coming in,” said director of rugby Alan Robinson.
“Ben is currently the coach at Gloucestershire University and is heavily involved in the southern amateur game and is also the head coach of the England Universities South squad.
“He’s very well connected within both the Student and amateur game across the south, so he brings that knowledge with him.
“We’re wanting to focus on working with the Student game and the amateur scene to find and develop new players within our own system and Ben will be a big part of us being able to do that, given his background in the game.
“Richard is a young coach who has moved to the area and has been involved with us for around 18 months. He’s worked in the community with Hull, Newcastle and Bradford and is now going to step up and take on more with us.”
DONCASTER have named Brad Foster as their captain for the new season and the 24-year-old has promised to lead the team by example.
“I was a bit shocked when Rich (coach Richard Horne) told me, but I was buzzing once I found out,” said Foster.
“I won’t hide when things get tough. I’ll get stuck in and hopefully the boys can follow that to bring us success.
“I know the fans want promotion and we players want it too. Given our squad there is no reason why we shouldn’t be up there competing.”
BARROW RAIDERS have been hit with the news that Papua New Guinean international Stargroth Amean will not be returning to the club as originally planned.
The 28-year-old centre was due to fly back to the UK earlier this month, but has been released from the second year of his contract because of family issues in his native country.
“He can change a game and that’s what you want; someone to think out of the box,” head coach Paul Crarey told the North West Evening Mail.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get from him. We brought him in for that reason because he’s a game changer and sometimes you need someone like that when teams are matched up in the big games.
“When we got out of this competition last time we had Chris Hankinson and Joe Bullock, and they’re both now playing in Super League, so it makes it real difficult for us.”
Amean’s international team-mate Wartovo Puara has however returned to Barrow and was set to feature against Workington Town on Sunday.
ROCHDALE HORNETS have added another experienced player to their ranks for this season with the signing of former Leigh Centurions and Toronto Wolfpack forward Sam Hopkins.
The 29-year-old Welsh international also made 23 appearances for Workington Town last season alongside fellow new recruit Sean Penkywicz.
“I am really excited to get a player of Sam’s experience,” said coach Matt Calland.
“He has played at Super League level with Leigh, having played over 100 games for them.
“He has also played for Wales and his influence on what is a young forward pack will be invaluable.”
WEST WALES RAIDERS coach Aaron Wood believes that if he can create the right atmosphere at the club this year, then they can take a big step forward on the field.
“With teams I have been at before, as a coach and a player, it’s always been important to have the right culture,” said Wood.
“I want to create a team here that turn up for each other, is positive and has a bit of fun.
“At the end of the day this is a semi-professional competition and the guys all have jobs. They work hard during the week, so they just want to have a game at the weekend and make sure it’s fun for them.
“Hopefully that attitude will get us some more wins and hopefully everyone gets on board and buys into what we want to do.
“If they do, who knows what can happen.
“We’re the underdogs, but we don’t mind that. The thing about this league is that everyone can win on their day and hopefully we can do that a couple more times this year.
“The guys that were here last year still go on about that win (against Coventry) and the fans’ club are still celebrating it as well.”
LONDON SKOLARS have handed first-team contracts to four homegrown players, who have recently excelled in the London Men’s League.
Two of them – Kayne Chan-Kitchener and Leighton Ball – had a taste of first-team action last year by featuring in the last game of the season.
They will be joined in the squad by Iestyn Withers and Abevia McDonald.
All four players were named in Jermaine Coleman’s squad to face London Broncos in Saturday’s Capital Challenge game.