Forty clubs hit the trophy trail this weekend – January 31 and February 1 – as the first round of Rugby League’s oldest and most prestigious competition, the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup, is staged across the country.
Twenty first-round ties featuring clubs drawn from the community game, Armed Forces, police and University Rugby League mark the start of a competition which, for all participants, climaxes in the capital in seven months’ time.
This year’s final – Saturday August 29 – is played 120 years to the day since Rugby League was founded at a meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, in 1895.
Making their own history in the community game last year was West Hull, who won the Kingstone Press Cider National Conference League Premier League Leaders’ Shield, Grand Final and Conference Challenge Trophy, as well as making it to the third round of the Challenge Cup.
“All the lads like playing in the Challenge Cup, it gives you an opportunity to play a professional side,” said West Hull coach Mark Hewitt. “But it’s just about one game at a time.”
West Hull’s opponents are Thatto Heath Crusaders – the club they defeated in the second round in 2014. Though they are facing arguably the strongest team in the first round, Crusaders coach Paul Hatton knows he does not have to do much to motivate his players.
“I always bill the Challenge Cup as the ‘Road to Wembley’, which it is,” said Hatton. “We are very fortunate to be invited to participate in the competition and we’ll give it everything we’ve got to go over there and give it our best performance. Everybody wants to play in the Challenge Cup, it’s a magnificent event.”
All 40 of the first-round entrants have been given odds of 10,000/1 by new competition sponsors Ladbrokes to make it all the way to the showcase final, but that is not stopping East Leeds coach Peter Clarkson from eyeing a shot at the professional clubs.
“It’s great for the lads to play against these professional teams,” said Clarkson, whose side has faced Sheffield Eagles and Leigh Centurions in the past two seasons, and who this year face Cumbria-based Kells in the first round.
“You dangle that carrot in front of some of our players and they’ll go chasing it – it’s a great competition.”
Barrow-based Walney Central, who last year raised £1,500 to fund their 650-mile-round trip to Portsmouth for their first round tie against the Royal Navy, have been drawn at home to Hunslet Parkside.
And alongside fourth-tier Walney, from the other end of the country, Harry Jepson Trophy winners, South West London Chargers, are looking forward to their participation for a second successive season.
Elsewhere Featherstone Lions host Queens, who enter the competition for the first time since 2009. Coach Scott Houston knows that the task facing Queens is not easy: “It will be a tough encounter because we know of them, and we know a few players, so we know it is going to be a tough game,” he said.
Aberdeen Warriors compete for the second successive year, and are again the competition’s most northerly participants, whilst Conference League South Grand Final winners Valley Cougars also enter. The education sector is represented by University and College Rugby League teams Leeds Beckett University and Loughborough University.
Visiting Loughborough are Hunslet Warriors, who last year stumbled at the first hurdle. Coach Tony Drury knows that if his club is to better the first round, the Warriors will have to overcome a talented student team.
“There will be no underestimating Loughborough as a team,” said Drury. “It will be their Cup final, they want to do well in this competition. There is a lot of ability in their team and they are well-coached, so we will not be going down there under any false pretence.
“I was involved with Wakefield and Hunslet in a professional basis in the past, and Loughborough was a good area to look for professional players. They are all athletes down there at university and they usually have a lot of surprises in the bag.”
All three Armed Forces teams are represented – the British Army is looking to build on last year’s third round appearance whilst the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy are looking to make it farther than last year’s second and first round exits respectively. Great Britain Police are also looking to go one better than their extra-time second round exit last year.
The North West Men’s League champions Widnes West Bank are entered along with Hunslet Parkside, Scarborough Pirates and Sharlston Rovers.
All first round ties are to be played over the weekend of January 31 – February 1.
Tickets for the 2015 Challenge Cup final at Wembley Stadium on Saturday August 29 cost from as little as £20 and can be purchased by calling the RFL Ticket Office on 0844 856 1113 or by visiting www.rugbyleaguetickets.co.uk.
The full schedule of Ladbrokes Challenge Cup first round ties is as follows:
Saturday January 31 – all games 2.00pm kick-off unless stated
Loughborough University v Hunslet Warriors
Oulton Raiders v Scarborough Pirates
Normanton Knights v Myton Warriors
Royal Navy v Saddleworth Rangers
East Leeds v Kells
The Army v Wath Brow (1.30pm)
Egremont Rangers v Wigan St Judes
Nottingham Outlaws v Blackbrook (1.30pm)
Widnes West Bank v South West London Chargers
Shaw Cross Sharks v York Acorn
Royal Air Force v Siddal (1.30pm)
Hull Dockers v Leigh Miners Rangers
Elland v Leeds Beckett University
Featherstone Lions v Queens (1.30pm)
Lock Lane v Sharlston Rovers
Walney Central v Hunslet Parkside (1.30pm)
Skirlaugh v Aberdeen Warriors
West Hull v Thatto Heath
Sunday February 1
Valley Cougars v Leicester Storm (2.00pm)
Great Britain Police v Rochdale Mayfield (2.30pm)