West Wales Raiders are one of three League 1 clubs preparing for their first game in over 12-months this weekend as the Challenge Cup gets underway.
Excitement is certainly building for all, especially for Raiders forward Joe Burke, who is set to pull his boots on for the first time in over three years when the Welsh outfit hosts Widnes on Sunday.
Burke’s last spell in the game ended with Oldham in 2017 and then Wales in the World Cup later that year.
He the took some time out of the game and set up his own plumbing firm in his native south Wales, and when he was ready to get involved in the game, was impressed by what the Raiders were offering. But then Covid hit and he had to extend his spell out of the game even further.
“For the team to have had such a long time off, everyone is itching to get back out there,” said 30-year-old Burke.
“I haven’t played since the last World Cup, but I have always stayed in touch with some of the boys and kept an eye on the club’s progress.
“When you have played the game for so long long you do miss it when you step away from it.
“After speaking to Aaron (Wood – coach) and some of the guys, I liked what they said and their plans for the club so I thought there was no better time to get back and hopefully bring some experience and knowledge to my local club.
“I have really missed the camaraderie with the boys and that changing room environment. It’s something you can’t emulate anywhere else.
“I have also missed when you wake up on a Monday morning, battered and sore you ask yourself why you do it, but at the same time you also ask when you can go again.
“The time off has done wonders for my body. All the little niggles and strains have gone so, like the rest of the team, I feel refreshed and ready to get back out there.
“I am just really excited to make my comeback now.”
Burke has been named co-vice captain of the Raiders this year alongside Morgan Evans, with marquee signing Rangi Chase named as captain.
“I am relishing the role and feel very proud to have been named vice-captain,” added Burke.
“Any experience, knowledge, hints and tips that I have picked up over the years that I can pass on, even the smallest of things, can hopefully benefit the whole team.”
Meanwhile former Wales International Jamie Murphy has returned to the game, signing a one-year deal with the club.
BARROW RAIDERS captain Jarrad Stack believes his club are well placed to spring a surprise in the Challenge Cup.
The Raiders travel to Oldham on Saturday in one of three clashes between a League 1 side and Championship opposition. The others see Keighley Cougars travel to London Broncos and West Wales Raiders host Widnes Vikings.
“I can’t wait to get back and I am just really thankful that the club decided that they wanted to be in the Challenge Cup,” said Stack.
“It might mean that we have a month in pre-season and then another month off before the league starts, but it will warm the guys up and give us a taste of what Rugby League actually is again.
“I am feeling pretty confident that we can go to Oldham and get a win.
“We know a few of their players and Lewis Charnock is their half, so we know what to expect from him.
“They have signed a lot of front rowers and have a big pack so they will try to beat us down the middle. But I think we have the team to deal with that.
“You only need to look at the likes of Ben Harrison and Adam Walne to see we have the team to take them.
“We belong in the Championship and are going for promotion and we deserve to be the favourites for it. Oldham aren’t one of the strongest teams in the Championship this year, but the game will give us a taste of where we need to be if we want to be there next year.
“No one is going into that game thinking we’re going to lose and I’m very very confident we can go there and get the win against what will be a good team.
“Everyone loves a Cup upset, and out of the three League 1 teams involved, I think we’re the strongest and the one with the most chance of going through to the next round.”
KEIGHLEY COUGARS coach Rhys Lovegrove named a father and son duo in his squad to face Bradford Bulls on Saturday.
New signing Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e made his debut for his new club alongside 17-year-old son Phoenix, who is currently on trial from the academy at Leicester Tigers Rugby Union club.
The duo both impressed, despite the Cougars going down 22-18 to the Championship outfit.
Despite the result, the game proved competitive preparation for the Cougars’ Challenge Cup tie against London Broncos.
It’s a game Lovegrove is looking forward too, even if it won’t play too big a role in his preparations for the League 1 season.
“It’s a difficult draw because no one in our league plays like London Broncos,” he said.
“We want to compete, and if we can put a really good performance in, it will be a great game for both clubs. But we’re not going to learn anything from that game in regards to what we’re going to come up against in the league.
“London are a full time outfit with an unbelievable squad, and it’s probably going to be on a 4g surface so it’s going to be incredibly fast.
“That is a different set of challenge to what we will come up against in our league, so from that perspective we probably won’t get as much out of it as we would if we’d played a northern team.
“A lot of northern teams are big and direct and play on similar pitches, so we’d probably get a bit more experience from that.
“But from ego perspective I’m relishing the idea to go down there for the hardest draw we could have got, and putting a marker down for how good we can be.
“I purposefully recruited very ambitious players. They are ambitious for the club, but they are also ambitious for their own individual careers and what better place to put a marker down than down in London against a promotion-challenging Championship squad.”
One player who won’t be involved on Saturday is new recruit Wellington Albert, who recently suffered a serious injury in training that is set the Papua New Guinea international out for the majority of the season.
“Already established as a popular figure with both team-mates and staff, the club will support Wellington and his family throughout this difficult period,” read a club statement.
“We wish Wellington a speedy recovery and hope to see him back on the pitch as soon as possible.”
DONCASTER chief executive Carl Hall has praised his players reaction to training in the unusual circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
His players are currently having to undergo a test ahead of each session and are still subject to regulations on what type, and how much contact they do in training.
But that has not stopped any of them from giving their all.
“Everyone is really happy,” said Hall.
“We’re training on the full-sized 3g pitch down at the Keepmoat Stadium, which is something wanted to do for years. It’s great that we’re getting both sessions on there and they are enjoying being out there on their own.
“The boys have been absolutely outstanding with way they have followed all the protocols ad testing. They know to wait outside until they are called in and are doing everything that’s asked of them.
“I can’t applaud them enough for how they have handled everything and they have been a pleasure to work with. We have a really good set of lads here and hopefully they will get the rewards this year from all the hard training they have been doing.
“They have been brilliant and are all turning up for each other.
“They are a credit to themselves.”
HUNSLET coach Gary Thornton has said just because he has got more players at his disposal this year, he won’t be doing anything with them that could jeopardise what they want to achieve this year.
“We hope that we have built a big enough squad this year to cover any injuries and omissions through Covid, because we don’t want to be seeing any games cancelled,” said Thornton.
“We want to make sure we are competitive for every game so we have built a squad up in that respect. We have got 26 training at the moment, where we’d normally only go with 22 or 23, so we’ve got some extra numbers in.
“But we still have to look at the health and safety of our players and their families, as if we get more than two cases we have to close our training camp down. We’re already squeezing training down into a pretty tight timescale, so we would really be under pressure then if we lost some time there.
“The players just want to be back playing now and we’ve been doing everything we can to get to that point. But we have also got to be careful that we don’t do anything that disrupts that.”
COVENTRY BEARS may not have hit the headlines as much as other teams in the league when it comes to new signings, but director of rugby Alan Robinson still believes his recruits will make a big impact in 2021.
“I am very confident that we have massively improved our squad this year,” said Robinson.
“We have got 30 guys in the squad and only a handful of those have been with us before. We pretty much have a brand new team.
“When you dig down into it we have brought in guys like Matt Welham and Dave Scott. These two, and some other guys, have played a lot of professional games and have that level of experience under their belts.
“They may not be the Gavin Hensons and Rangi Chases of the world, but for us it’s about us getting the job done, focussing on ourselves and getting some results.
“We’re probably just about done with the squad now, but we’re always looking at ways we can improve ourselves.
“At the minute though you don’t want too many players in because you have to manage them too and find that fine line between having enough in the squad but having the right number that people can still play and develop.
“We have picked up a couple of young guys that are real prospects and we will try to continue to give them opportunities.
“But we need to improve as a club and we have taken huge strides in doing that since 2019.”
WORKINGTON TOWN chairman Les Smallwood has said the club are making the return of fans a poignant event in West Cumbria.
Under the Government roadmap, fans may return to Derwent Park for the game against Doncaster on Sunday May 30, with tributes planned for those unable to return.
“We can’t wait until we can have fans back,” said Smallwood.
“The players want the fans back and the fans want to see the players again as well.
“It’s been a long time since we had people in the ground and everyone has missed it – it’s in the blood.
“That first game when the fans will be here will be very special, but also emotional.
“We have lost quite a few good friends and supporters to Covid this year, so it will be a time of reflection as well.
“We will be looking at doing something special on the day to mark those people that we have lost.”
NORTH WALES CRUSADERS coach Anthony Murray cannot wait for the club’s fans to be allowed back into the stadium.
As it stands that could be for the game against Workington Town on Sunday, May 23rd.
“It’s a huge boost for the club that crowds should be allowed back in after just one behind closed doors,” said Murray.
“But it’s also a huge boost for everyones mental health and well being.
“Our fans are quite close to us as a team and to me personally, so I am really looking forward to meeting them all again and having a good chat about the game.
“As much as it’s good for the club from financial point of view, it will also be really good for everyone to see each other again and for the players to have people behind them cheering them on. When you know there are people watching you and getting behind you it gives players a bit extra in their tank.
“I am also excited to see our fans enjoying watching the team again.
“They have show great loyalty to the club this year and they are, without doubt, our 18th man.
“So when they can finally get back in it will be a great way to reward that loyalty and I am confident we can give them a lot to cheer about this year.”
ROCHDALE HORNETS prop Gavin Bennion is in the perfect position to see just how well the club is developing both on and off the field.
The 27-year-old rejoined the club ahead of this season after last playing for the Hornets in 2018 and has also taken on the role of Talent Pathway and Community Engagement Officer within the club’s foundation.
“The club has gone massively up since I was here last time and is in a much better position now,” said Bennion.
“It was ok back then, don’t get me wrong, but since the takeover there is definitely more of a drive here now.
“Good things are happening – not just financially, but behind the scenes there are plans in place to get more fans in.
“There has been a big push to get the Foundation involved in whatever we can. We need bums on seats in the stadium and a good way to do that is to get out into the community and get kids wanting to come and watch us. “The more kids we can bring in, the more mums and dads that come with them.
“Things are looking really good and hopefully we can get a really good feel around the place soon.”
LONDON SKOLARS winger Iliess Macani, a personal trainer by profession, has been making his presence felt among his team mates by helping them with their fitness programmes throughout the pandemic.
But fans will also see the impact of this when prop Eddie Mbaraga takes to the field.
“Eddie has had a drastic physical change,” said Macani.
“He’s lost around 25kg so he’ll be looking to turn some heads this year.
“He’s gone from a five minute prop to hopefully playing a good 20 minutes. That puts a bit more weight on his shoulders in games so hopefully all that work will be for a good cause.”
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