Coral Challenge Cup glory beckons for amateurs

THE Wembley dream continues at the weekend for eleven amateur sides, all of whom will be aiming to book a place in the fourth round draw at Halifax next Monday evening.

How many grass roots outfits will have a direct interest in the event?

There will be three, for sure, in what I for one view as a benefit of having an `open’, rather than seeded, draw.

The British Army take on Ince Rose Bridge of the National Conference League’s First Division at Aldershot on Saturday and, on the same afternoon, Leigh Miners Rangers – like Ince, of the NCL’s Division One – entertain Yorkshire Men’s League outfit Bentley.

Those two ties promise thrills and spills – especially as Ince have strong personal links with their hosts, not least in the shape of Jimmy Aspinall, who was for many years the Army Rugby League side’s highly efficient secretary.

The third all-amateur clash is a very attractive offering in which two of the giants of the Conference, Siddal and reigning champions West Hull, go head-to-head.

These two clubs have been strong rivals for the best part of two decades, in fact they met in the second and third of the NCL’s Grand Finals, in 2002-3 and 2003-4, with Wests edging both games, by 19-14 and 18-16 respectively.

Both matches, at Batley’s Mount Pleasant, remain strong in the memory and I’ve no doubt that the 2020 Coral Challenge Cup offering will be equally close and thrilling.

What of the prospects for the other six amateur teams? Well, the Rugby Football League and the BBC have opted for a very intriguing tie to televise live on the Saturday. Rochdale Mayfield, of the Conference’s top flight, will host Betfred League 1 outfit North Wales Crusaders, who famously lost to Thatto Heath Crusaders twelve months ago and who will be determined to avoid going through that kind of trauma again.

The match, on the Beeb’s sports channel, kicks off at 12.30pm and will be streamed live. The clash between the Army and Ince, incidentally, will be broadcast on Leaguenet and will swing into action at 2.15pm.

The remaining four grassroots sides face daunting professional opposition. What is certain is that Thornhill Trojans won’t be fazed by the prospect of taking on Doncaster at the Tetley’s Stadium, Dewsbury, on Saturday.

The Trojans won’t need reminding that they toppled Sheffield Eagles 20 years ago – in fact they held a very timely reunion last Saturday – and the Dons will, for sure, know that they will have to be at their very best if they are to progress, notwithstanding that Thornhill were relegated from the NCL’s top flight last time. The fact that the Dewsbury outfit beat Conference Grand Finalists Thatto Heath in the last round should put the south Yorkshire lads on red alert.

Many eyes will, too, be on Sunday’s tie between West Wales Raiders and Underbank Rangers.

This is a fixture underpinned by the fact that one of the newest clubs in the game is taking on one of the oldest. Underbank, who of course produced the legendary Harold Wagstaff of Rorke’s Drift Test and Huddersfield’s `Team of all the Talents’ fame, were also graced by the presence of Neil Fox, Ian Brooke and David Jeanes for a spell after the trio retired from the professional arena. The current squad featured in the NCL’s Grand Final play-offs last season and it has to be said that, for some, the surprise will be if the Raiders prevail.

The two other amateur sides are far from without hope, although they admittedly face stiff challenges. York Acorn, who were promoted from the Conference’s Division One in 2019, are at Rochdale Hornets on Sunday. Hornets were relegated from the Betfred Championship last year so this is a meeting of teams that headed in different directions a few short months ago. The prevailing moods in the two camps could therefore come into play in this tie; whether that will be enough to perhaps lead to an upset is the big question.

West Bowling travel to Workington Town who have in their camp Gary Murdock, who was the player-coach of the all-conquering Ellenborough Rangers outfit of the 1990s. Murdock will ensure – not that such advice will, I’ve no doubt, be needed – that the Cumbrians don’t take their visitors from Bradford lightly.

Article extracted from Talking Grassroots, League Express, Monday 3 February 2020