FORMER professional Ritchie Hawkyard remains as hungry to succeed as ever as he prepares to re-acquaint himself with the Challenge Cup.
But the former Bradford Bulls, Swinton Lions, Keighley Cougars and Oldham fullback or halfback insists Newsome Panthers’ historic first-round tie against Wests Warriors in London on Saturday is far more about the progressive Huddersfield club and the rest of their players than himself.
Hawkyard, 38 a week on Sunday, took the reins at his hometown amateur team in late 2020 after calling time on his second spell at Keighley after Covid had stopped that campaign in its tracks.
He had topped 250 appearances, including one for Scotland and more than 20 in the Challenge Cup.
Hawkyard had long been involved in coaching, with stints at other Huddersfield sides Slaithwaite Saracens and Underbank Rangers.
Newsome Panthers, founded in 1995 after a former club Newsome Magpies fell by the wayside after a period of success in the Pennine League, were well-known as a prolific producer of future professionals.
The likes of Huddersfield Giants stalwarts Leroy Cudjoe and Michael Lawrence, now captain at Bradford (where Hawkyard came through the Academy and played three Super League games), and Sheffield Eagles brothers Joel and Izaac Farrell took their first Rugby League steps with the Panthers.
However the fortunes of the open-age sides had dipped – and the new player-coach was determined to do something about it.
Progress under his tutelage has been impressive, with two unbeaten seasons in the Yorkshire Men’s League Second Division being followed by two-step elevation to the Premier Division for 2023.
The Panthers finished joint-top with Fryston Warriors, each side winning 13 out of 16, before beating them 20-18 in the play-off final at the Horsfall Stadium in Bradford to claim the title and a first-ever place in the Challenge Cup.
The Panthers, based in the shadow of Castle Hill, the ancient monument which overlooks Huddersfield, have aspirations of bringing National Conference League rugby back to the noted Rugby League town (Underbank withdrew two years ago).
But for the moment, Hawkyard, who works as a plasterer for Kirklees Council, is concentrating on the big cup-tie against Southern Conference League team Wests at the Twyford Avenue Sports Ground in Acton, West London.
“It’s great for the club to be involved, and it’s a reward for the hard work put in by a lot of people, both behind the scenes and in the playing squad,” he said.
“I’ve had great support since I’ve been here, and the aim has been to get the club running on as professional a basis as an amateur club can possibly do.
“We have slowly but surely built up the intensity of training and the lads have shown great dedication and bought into what we’re trying to do.
“Stepping up two divisions was a big thing for us, because there are some really good sides in the Yorkshire Men’s League – Fryston, Westgate Common and Doncaster Toll Bar, for example.
“We know they will be coming for us this season, but we want to retain the title, and ultimately, try and get into the NCL. It will take a lot of work, but you have to aim high, otherwise what’s the point of playing?”
Saturday’s winners will earn a home second-round tie against NCL big boys Rochdale Mayfield on the weekend of January 27/28.
And Hawkyard continued: “We’re under no illusions – it’s likely to be a tough tie, especially with them having home advantage.
“It’s hard to compare the levels of leagues each of us are in because we are so far apart geographically, and given it’s the start of a new season, line-ups can change.
“But I’ve done quite a bit of digging into what they’re about, and spoken to a few contacts who know the Southern scene better than I do, and they’ve provided a few pointers.”
Given it’s a 380-mile round trip, the Panthers will travel south the day before the tie.
“It’s a big occasion for us, and we wanted to make it a bit different and give ourselves the best chance of winning we can,” added Hawkyard.
“Most of the lads are from the Huddersfield area and we want to fly the flag for the town, because there hasn’t been much notable amateur involvement in the Challenge Cup since Underbank made the fourth round (in 2020) and played Bradford.
“And we’ve told the younger ones that this is an opportunity for them to catch the eye and start their own journey onto bigger things.
“We’d like to see some more players progress from Newsome Panthers to the professional game.”