THE Betfred Challenge Cup draws at Wembley, for the first and second rounds of the men’s competition and the group allocations in the women’s, were well-orchestrated affairs which threw up some very interesting clashes.
Although not quite so in the Women’s Challenge Cup, perhaps.
There is, unavoidably, less drama involved in ’round-robin’ draws, where ‘sudden death’ will not be involved.
Of course, however, there will be intrigue aplenty when the women’s competition gets going in April.
There are many diverting ties in the men’s competition, not least because the draws for the first two rounds were made.
I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before (well, okay, hands up – I have) but I’m a Hunslet supporter, going back far enough to remember when we were the bookies’ favourites to lift the trophy (that was in 1964, when thanks to Oldham pulling off a huge upset which, and I’m not kidding, I’ve never really got over, we stumbled in the quarter-finals).
The following year, though, we reached Wembley, and experienced honourable defeat at the hands of Wigan in perhaps the finest final of all.
I mention Hunslet (and why not – I’m not sure that there’s a club with a prouder or more innovative history in any sport, never mind just in Rugby League) because they have been given a hugely attractive home draw in the second round.
Hunslet will entertain, on the last weekend of February, the winners of the first-round tie between Heworth and Oulton Raiders.
That will be a special match, whether it will be the Villagers or the Raiders who provide the opposition (and, for me, it’s very much a 50:50 call regarding which of those two will prevail in the first round).
If it’s Heworth, well I’m not sure that Kenny Sykes will know which way to turn as he has a foot very solidly in both camps.
A product of the York-based side, he joined Hunslet in the early 1970s and gave tremendous service as the epitome of a solid club man (he is now a member of the Hall of Fame) before returning to his junior club, with whom he won a National League (now National Conference League) championship medal in 1987, Thatto Heath denying the York outfit the ‘double’ with victory in the National Cup Final.
On retirement as a player, Kenny gave grand service to Heworth for decades, treating everything with the same cool aplomb through both the good and the difficult years. Having stepped back recently, he is now the club’s president.
All the while he remained involved, latterly as president, with Hunslet’s Ex-Parkside Former Players’ Association, which has rightly been described as the most exclusive club in sport as only men who played for Hunslet prior to the sale of Parkside in 1973 are entitled to be members.
So, if Heworth beat Oulton, Kenny will have a tough decision to make about what he will wear. His Hunslet blazer, of which he is inordinately proud, or his Heworth gear, which rightly means just as much to him?
Kenny won’t have that problem, of course, if Oulton win at Elmpark Way.
There will, in that event, still be huge resonance, not least because the Raiders’ base isn’t too far away from Hunslet.
And Danny Burton will then have a similar problem to what would have been Kenny’s.
Danny was a superb player for Oulton for many years, always leading from the front and notably picking up a National Conference League winners’ medal in 2006.
That was a fabulous achievement, under coach Billy Bowden (who himself starred for many years for Hunslet as a dynamic second-row forward), in which mindset and attitude played a big part.
Those are qualities which Danny is now bringing to bear to the Hunslet cause, as one of coach Alan Kilshaw’s assistants.
He will, for sure, have to wear Hunslet’s gear for the second-round tie but he wouldn’t be human, if it’s Oulton rather than Heworth who step out at the South Leeds Stadium, if part of his heart is with the Raiders, from whom Hunslet hooker Harvey Whiteley was signed.
Other links exist through, for example, Hunslet fullback Jimmy Watson, who is now in his benefit year and who played for Oulton as a junior, while the Raiders could have Matty Stableford, the hardworking prop who gave great service to Hunslet before returning to the Raiders because of work commitments, in their ranks.
And I’ve not even touched on Mick Coyle, another Hunslet Hall of Famer who was in the Oulton side who lifted the NCL title 17 years ago.
You wouldn’t make it up, would you? Talk about the magic of the Challenge Cup – I’m looking forward to looking at the other many appetising ties in the week before the first round.
One club not involved in the Challenge Cup draw, but which I hope will be in time, is Liverpool Lizards, who were formed last year by several former Liverpool University players.
The ambitious Lizards got in touch with me last week about their hopes for this season and I hope they will thrive in a city in which, despite the happy memories provided by Liverpool Stanley, Liverpool City and Huyton, has, inexplicably, never exactly embraced Rugby League, something which I’ve always found odd.
Perhaps the advice of someone like Richard Lewis should be sought.
The former chief executive of the Rugby Football League, who returned to lawn tennis after several years at the helm, is not perhaps too fondly remembered in Rugby League circles – certainly not by those in the amateur camp who fought against the unification of the RFL and BARLA, which the astute Lewis drove through.
But in my opinion he did some tremendous work, and there was hard evidence last week when the European Rugby League celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Lewis was, with Frenchman Jean Paul Ferré, a key figure in the launch of what was then called the Rugby League European Federation, and he showed tremendous courage and resilience in doing so.
The ERL perhaps goes under the radar a little, as the international teams involved are not, currently, likely to get anywhere near winning, for example, the World Cup.
But that doesn’t matter very much, if at all. The important point is that international Rugby League is being played throughout Europe with, it has to be said, that very capable general manager David Butler overseeing matters.
And if any of those countries ever do reach the heights (and even if they don’t), more than a nod should be directed towards Lewis, even if he and his wife, who were high in the stands, may well have wondered what exactly they had got into (as did I, watching mesmerised from the touchline) when the game at Padua in 2008 between BARLA Great Britain Under 23s and a Parisian side – who, I have to say, were responsible for the fracas – was abandoned because of a mass brawl.
Back to 1973 for a moment, though, and the sale of Parkside.
If anything good emerged from that awful episode it was the launch of the Hunslet Parkside junior club.
Jack Lunn gave the new outfit massive support and several people, notably Colin Cooper, made the most of it, building some of the best teams in the country.
Men like Garry Schofield, a proud Parkside product who went on to enjoy a glittering professional career, are very aware of what Colin, who died late last year, and others did for them.
Schoey is among those who have organised a 50th anniversary celebration of Hunslet Parkside’s launch, for the end of September, when the inaugural Colin Cooper Memorial Award will be presented.
If you’ve any links at all with that club – even as an opposing player – snap up your ticket, which will cost just a fiver.
And, reflecting on Oulton’s NCL title win in 2006, I recall that a motivating factor was a composite league table I’d produced at the start of the season, calculated from how each club believed teams would end up at the close of the campaign.
Their peers reckoned the Raiders would get the wooden spoon. Billy Bowden pinned that table on the dressing-room door to help galvanise his players, and didn’t his ploy work!
Now we have all returned to something like normal after the Covid lockdowns (I hope) I think I’ll resurrect that annual feature this year.
I’ll be in touch with all NCL secretaries in the next few weeks, asking for predictions for their own section so, in advance – get your thinking caps on, please.
And, at around the same time, I hope to be able to report that a major aim of the World Cup – to increase participation numbers – has been achieved. Fingers crossed…
This article comes from Phil Hodgson’s ‘Talking Grass Roots’ column in this week’s issue of League Express. You can take out a subscription by going to https://www.totalrl.com/league-express/