If Christmas is coming, it surely means that Challenge Cup fever is beginning to hot up.
The identity of what I understand will be 28 amateur teams taking part is set to be revealed tomorrow (Tuesday 30 November) and the list will, as always, make interesting reading.
The Rugby Football League is rightly keeping their identities under wraps for now, but I’m hearing on the grapevine that Galway Tribesmen will be in the mix.
That’s an exciting inclusion and I’m sure that the Irish outfit’s players and coaches will already be getting worked up ahead of the draws for the first two rounds, which will be made at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Tuesday 14 December, with the competition getting underway on the weekend of 15/16 January.
I don’t know who, other than the Tribesmen, will be going into the hat in the middle of next month but it will be a surprise if the National Conference League isn’t very well represented. Champions Thatto Heath Crusaders should be a shoe-in, I’d have thought, while Wath Brow Hornets, who were runners-up in the recent Grand Final, would yet again grace the venerable competition with their presence.
I wonder if those who make these decisions have thought to perhaps reward the NCL’s seven regional champions of 2021, the flagship league having opted last season to break new ground by temporarily shelving its four divisions in the face of Covid-19 restrictions. It would be a nice touch, for sure; for the record the sextet would be Thatto and Wath Brow, together with Crosfields, Heworth, Normanton Knights, Siddal and West Bowling.
We’ll find out tomorrow on that one, I suppose, and we’ll also learn whether the RFL has stuck with tradition and included GB Police, the Army, the Royal Navy and the RAF.
Club sides with strong cases include the respective champions of the Iggesund Cumberland, North West Men’s, Yorkshire Men’s, Barrow and North East Leagues, not to mention the Southern Conference, Welsh and Scottish Leagues (none of whom I’ll name at this stage as it might perhaps be unwise to fuel expectations) while the big guns of the Student League also deserve a shout, although exactly who would be chosen is tricky as that competition never got going in 2020-21 because of Covid lockdowns.
If Wigan St Patricks are in the list (which may not be the case – I seem to remember Pats opting out in 2020, which was the last time amateur sides were included) they will have a man with huge Challenge Cup experience on board, having last week named the legendary Andy Gregory as Head Coach.
Phew, there’s an appointment! I’m almost tempted to have a bet on the men from Clarington Park winning the competition, such is Greg’s status as a Wembley winner, although one stumbling block in that regard is the fact that the 2022 final won’t be played at that great stadium.
It would be nice in some ways to see Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the line-up, although I think I can safely say that neither will be. The Blues, whether of light or dark hue, aren’t quite of that standing in Rugby League terms although Cambridge might not have agreed with that assessment when the final whistle went at last Wednesday’s South East fixture with Brighton, which they won 94-1.
That’s one of those scorelines which prompts a double-take, isn’t it, for a number of reasons? The big winning score is one factor, of course, while another that sprung to my mind is `how on earth did Brighton get one point?’
Their field goal, in fact, came at the very end of the match, which while gratifying I suppose for the visitors, who had avoided being nilled, may well have irked the Light Blues a little. One supporter pondered on whether the result was the first 94-1 in Rugby League history. I suspect it may well have been. Pleasingly it suggests that Cambridge, who ended a long barren run in the Varsity Match by accounting for Oxford earlier this year, really are very much on the rise.
The 2021-22 Student and College Leagues are in full swing right now of course, as are the Pennine and Women’s Leagues. The latter is throwing up a few interesting diversions, albeit not in terms of historic scorelines. Two recent games have been worryingly abandoned, in both instances an ambulance having to be called.
The first, during the Second Division fixture between Illingworth and Batley, was called off at half-time when an unnamed Batley player suffered a seizure at pitch-side. Happily the lass in question made a full and speedy recovery, I’m told. And, during last week’s Division One match involving Dewsbury Moor Maroons and Oulton Raidettes, the ambulance that came to attend an injured player got stuck in the mud on the pitch and had to be pulled out by a tow truck.
You wouldn’t make it up, would you? The most important thing is that the player turned out to be ok. Let’s hope that these things don’t run in threes; I’m sure you’re now turning to the Women’s section in this issue to find out. Meanwhile congratulations are due to Manchester University, whose victory over Batley last week was the first in their history.
Finally, interest remains unabated in the implications of the RFL’s planned membership scheme, which will become reality next year.
The interview in which the RFL’s Robert Hicks explained the background to Sky’s Fraser Dainton was, I thought, very impressive and illuminating. I had a good chat with Hicks myself last week, when he again put the RFL’s case very well.
For all that, it’s troubling that many people who are, often, at the helm at their clubs – and big clubs at that – still have little notion about what the scheme involves. Quite why that is so I don’t know but, coincidentally, I had a call from that great stalwart Glenn Davies on Friday. Glenn (who is recovering from an operation, and I’m sure all in the sport will join me in wishing him well) is not at a club as such, but he’s very actively involved in many aspects of Rugby League – especially where it might involve him doing other people some good – and he wanted to know what it’s all about.
After filling him in as best I could, I sent him the link to the Hicks-Dainton interview, which will I’m sure go a long way to explaining the issue for him. Before then, though, he reiterated what others have previously suggested – that the RFL should call a meeting, at a big venue, at which they could field and answer questions from clubs. Not a bad idea in my opinion, although a very strong chair would be needed. For me, there’s no doubt that the RFL provides a wide range of what, these days, are vital support services, which obviously have to be funded as Sport England steps back. But a key aspect, in my opinion, is whether the governing body, which has pledged to assist those who cannot afford the fees (which will no doubt be the case for many families, given that Rugby League is often played in what are termed areas of social deprivation) could essentially end up largely paying itself. We’ll see about that in the next few months.
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