DATES and kick-off times have been confirmed by the Rugby Football League for the first round of the 2024 Betfred Challenge Cup, which gets under way at the weekend with ten ties, all involving amateur sides.
Nine of the fixtures will be played on Saturday. The other, between North West Men’s League rivals Orrell St James and Haresfinch, is on Sunday, and will be broadcast live by The Sportsman in a repeat of the last two years’ initiatives.
The RFL had already announced that the tie between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy had been selected for live streaming from RAF Cranwell, in Lincolnshire, on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport from the 12.30pm kick-off.
That match promises to be a thriller. Both teams enjoyed victories in the first round twelve months ago before exiting the competition at the second stage, with the Navy slipping against professionals North Wales Crusaders after having beaten Impact Performance National Conference League side Barrow Island, and the RAF succumbing to York Acorn (another NCL outfit) following their victory at Doncaster Toll Bar.
James Hutchinson, who has succeeded the retiring Garry Dunn, is the RAF’s new head coach and Michael Burch, the RAF team chairman, said: “I know that Hutch is really looking forward to the early opportunity that the Challenge Cup presents to get his tenure started.
“Our first aim will be to defeat the Royal Navy in round one. The next target is based upon a healthy competition to be the last remaining Armed Forces team in the Challenge Cup, while also aspiring to reach the third round for the first time.
“At this time of year there are opportunities for those stepping up to cover regular first-team players (many of whom are deployed on operations so that they can deconflict with the Armed Forces season which runs from May through to early October) to prove their first-team credentials.
“The players, fully aware of the history of the Challenge Cup and its special place as part of Royal Air Force Rugby League’s heritage, regard the opportunity to be a part of the competition as a real honour.
“There has been a real buzz since the draw was made last month and the earlier-than-expected opportunity to make right an Armed Forces Inter-Service defeat by the Royal Navy in September 2023 is an added bonus.
“This will also be the first time our team will have met since a once-in-a-lifetime tour to New Zealand last November when, in our last game, we drew 32-32 against the Royal New Zealand Air Force.”
The Royal Navy are coached by the long-serving Darren Bamford, and head of management Jason Steele said: “It is always an honour and a privilege to compete in such a prestigious competition.
“We aim to progress as far as we possibly can although we appreciate that competition is tough – and, with meeting the RAF in the first round, we know we need to be on form to progress.
“The players and backroom staff are, as always, really excited about playing the RAF, not least because they were the last team we met in 2023, and are now the first in 2024.
Although we got the win in our last clash they are a strong outfit and we are very aware that it will be a very tough match.”
The other Armed Forces side – the Army – are at Pennine League side Fryston Warriors, of Castleford, while Haresfinch share the Navy’s and RAF’s excitement about being on centre-stage before a large TV audience.
The St Helens side are coached by Mark Saunders and Andy Murray, and secretary Dom Gale said: “It means a great deal to be playing in the competition for the first time.
“The excitement around the club and the community is a new level for us and we are very proud and grateful for the opportunity.
“We hope to progress as far as possible but are approaching the competition one game at a time, and will remain focused that way.
“The lads have hit the pre-season hard and they are ready to go into the coming campaign, while the Challenge Cup adds another dimension.
“Mark Saunders and Andy Murray are dedicated, hard-working and committed to the club and to Rugby League. They are a true credit to Haresfinch RLFC.”
JET-PROPELLED WELSH BID
SOUTH WALES JETS, who are in the first year of their existence, have been handed a plum home draw against one of the oldest amateur clubs around – Leeds-based Stanningley, of the NCL First Division.
The Jets’ owner, Liam Price, told League Express: “I started the team as a charity side to raise awareness for men’s mental health and to try to break the stigma of speaking to your mates (about it).
“Since then it’s evolved and, due to overwhelming support, we introduced a Rugby League side which went unbeaten last year.
“Hopefully we can build on that success and bring higher profile Rugby League back to South Wales.
“To go unbeaten in our first league campaign and become Welsh Champions – and qualify for this tournament – is a dream come true.
“We know we have a strong squad that can compete in the first few rounds but naturally we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. Stanningley are a very good side and we will give them the respect they deserve.
“Our main objective is to concentrate on round one, and hopefully we can make it further.”
He concluded: “We have been lucky enough to have Ben Flower and Lloyd White training with us as part of our preparations.
“The knowledge they have passed on is fantastic, the mood in the squad is upbeat, and everyone wants to put in a performance come game day.”
Wests Warriors head coach Kimbo Parkinson said, ahead of the London outfit’s home tie with Yorkshire Men’s League champions Newsome Panthers: “After getting to round three last season, and experiencing the highs of playing seven-time winners Widnes, we have set ourselves a goal to get to the third round again.
“Being in the Challenge Cup is reward for our hard work on and off the pitch. It means a lot to our players as it gives them an opportunity to play and test themselves against new opposition outside of the Southern Conference League.
“We are honoured to be back in the competition as it brings much needed positive exposure to Rugby League in the South.
“The lads are fizzing for round one and have been training the house down. We aren’t looking any further than Newsome and, should we come away with the win, only then we will switch our attention and focus on Rochdale Mayfield.”
EAGLES’ CROSS-BORDER QUEST
EDINBURGH EAGLES, giants of the Scotland Rugby League, make the relatively short trip to Holmen Iggesund Cumberland League side Lowca.
Official Andrew McPhail said: “Being invited to take part is acknowledgment that Edinburgh Eagles were the best team in Scotland in 2023, having won the domestic competition.
“While the Challenge Cup gives us an opportunity to measure our progress against established teams, we are under no illusion that we are one of the weakest sides in round one.
“Our objective is to give a good account of ourselves, and of the standard of the game in Scotland. If that is good enough on the day, hopefully that earn us a win.
“We decided to move to away from having one head coach and, instead, have a coaching team this year.
“Former Eagles player Ash Carrol will act as head coach and will be assisted by current long-standing Edinburgh players Lewis Clarke and Mikey Mair, who both have experience of being involved with the Scotland international team.
“The squad is optimistic. More and more of our players now have experience of playing in the Challenge Cup and are keen to be able to say that they were part of a Scottish team that has won in round one after many years of trying.”
Wayne Haselden, who is Ashton Bears’ manager, is also assistant to head coach Dave Picton.
The Wigan outfit, who are among the North West Men’s League’s high-flyers, have been drawn at Yorkshire Men’s League outfit Doncaster Toll Bar with a second-round visit from West Hull up for grabs and Haselden told League Express: “This is our third season in the Challenge Cup and we are yet to play at home, so that’s massive motivation to get to round two.
“It is always an honour to play in this historic competition. We’ve had some fantastic away trips – to Edinburgh, Siddal, the Army and Dewsbury – but we’ve never played on our own patch.
“We’re excited, as always at this time of year. We tend not to do too much before Christmas and then come in all guns blazing at the start of January.
“Although reaching round two and hosting our first ever Challenge Cup game would be massive for the club we will just enjoy the ride and go as far as we can.”
NCL Division One outfit Clock Face Miners host Premiers Heworth and the St Helens outfit’s secretary Andy Hatton said: “Taking part means a hell of a lot to us.
“This is only our second appearance in our, almost, 103-year history so it’s very special.
“We’d love to make it to the third round and get a game against a semi-pro club. It’ll be a tough ask though, with wins required against Heworth and Siddal.
“We’ve had some close and thrilling games against Heworth but have yet to beat them in the NCL, but with a large home crowd behind us, our coach Mark Costello could get the win.
“Siddal beat us 24-0 in our first Challenge Cup appearance several years ago but, with a bit of luck, you never know.
“We have a number of young lads who have come into the side via our youth system and who may be making their cup debuts. They’ve brought a lot of energy to training and the players are buzzing.”