Grass Roots: Some cracking Challenge Cup ties this weekend

The start of the 2014 Tetley’s Challenge Cup is just a few days away now and I’m aware that my coverage of the competition so far, at least regarding the opening rounds, has been to a degree negative.

That, in truth, has been largely unavoidable given the shameful way in which Sharlston Rovers in particular have been treated by not being invited to enter.

Now, however, is the time for the primary focus to be on the games themselves, and there are certainly some cracking ties on offer at the weekend.

Traditionalists will be excited most, perhaps, by ties such as the clash of Oulton Raiders and their Hatton’s Solicitors National Conference League compatriots, reigning champions West Hull.

Then we have what should be a pulsating `derby’ between Lock Lane and Normanton Knights, who are of course also NCL outfits, and what is a massive pairing involving Leigh Miners Rangers and Hunslet Warriors.

It’s hard, incidentally, to write in terms of heartland teams in this year’s Challenge Cup without remarking on the fact that they are members of the NCL, given that so few teams in Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire from outside that league have been invited by the RFL to take part.

Exceptions are Widnes St Marie’s and Halton Simms Cross, of the RFL’s North West Men’s League, together with Cumbria Men’s League champions Walney Central. But that’s about it, given the exclusion of teams from BARLA’s winter-based Hull, North West Counties and Pennine Leagues.

Their absence, however, makes it easier for the spotlight to fall on teams beyond the three northern counties, and no tie stands out more, for me, than the one involving South West London Chargers and Torfaen Tigers, of Wales.

There are, sadly, too many folk in our sport who seek to decry sides in London, Wales and elsewhere. I’m not one of them. Look beyond the perceived problems at Super League and Championship level (where many of the criticisms can, in any case, be questioned) and Rugby League isn’t doing too badly at all outside Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, thanks very much.

South West London is, in fact, the place to be on Saturday in my opinion for those fans who like to attend each round of the Challenge Cup in person. A little bit of history is being made at that game, and it would be good to be able to share in it.

Aberdeen Warriors, meanwhile, have a very tough call, but a romantic one, at Pilkington Recs. The Scottish champions are taking on an amateur outfit with a wonderful pedigree in the Challenge Cup, having lit up the competition in the 1970s in particular when both Castleford and Wigan were tested to the limit in front of huge crowds.

The Warriors will learn something about the venerable old competition, I reckon, when they spend next Saturday afternoon in St Helens, and they’ll be all the better for it in the long term.

Bristol Sonics, who are another go-ahead outfit with, I think, a big future, are also visiting one of grassroots Rugby League’s historic clubs, in the shape of Hull Dockers.

These are chances, win or lose, for what I would once have called outpost clubs to embrace the code’s heart, and I’m sure the opportunities won’t be wasted.

I mentioned another outpost club – Southampton Spitfires – last week and I make no apologies for returning to them again.

Several Spitfires personnel are behind the launch of the Hampshire Youth Rugby League, which is yet another example of how folk all around the country are ready and willing to roll their sleeves up, intelligently and with proper strategic planning, on behalf of our sport.

Andy Moore and his colleagues have certainly laid foundations which should ensure that their project will be a success, and it’s voluntary efforts such as their’s that lead me to believe that the loss of many development officers through funding cutbacks may not have been so debilitating after all.

We lost some fantastic folk in the process, that’s for sure, but there are plenty of others out there who are ready and able to step up in their place for nothing, which is no bad thing.

I’d like to see BARLA getting more involved in such initiatives. The Association perhaps lost its way a couple of decades ago in this respect, with officials finding themselves firefighting, following perennial spats with the RFL, rather than focusing as it should have been on national development.

Life begins at 40, so they say, and hopefully BARLA will regain much of its old zest in future years by being more active in spreading the word throughout the land.

Not that the Association is necessarily all that tired. Evidence of that has been served by the announcement that a reunion is being held of all former internationals at which former BARLA Great Britain Youth players Andy Gregory and Garry Schofield, to name just two of Rugby League’s legends, will be present.
The bash, at Leigh Sports Village in early April, promises to be quite something and I’m sure that just about everyone who is able to make it will be there.

Meanwhile, the NCL confirmed at its AGM last Monday that it is to reduce its Premier Division from 14 to 12 teams next year, with four sides to be relegated at the end of 2014. That should make for a very interesting season in the top flight, with only four teams at its close not being involved in either the play-offs or the trapdoor.

In practice, however, the numbers relating to promotion or relegation in the Conference often seem to be changed, for various unavoidable reasons, midterm.

It will be interesting to see how matters have panned out by the autumn; and it will be equally interesting to see how the winter-based North West Counties League has fared by that time.

Clubs in what was once the biggest Open Age league in the country pledged, last week, to keep going in 2014-15, despite vastly reduced numbers, and help has been promised by the summer-based North West Men’s League, which some may find ironic. All will wish them well.

Read Phil Hodgson’s Talking Grass Roots column every Monday in League Express