Keighley Cougars are on a roll – but please let’s not call it Cougarmania mark two.
It was great to pay a recent visit to watch Rhys Lovegrove’s League One leaders beat Hunslet 60-18.
I enjoyed the chance to catch up with a few of the people I got to know during my time as a club ambassador at Cougar Park, a ground I have a soft spot for, since it was the scene of my first try at senior level, for Hull in a Yorkshire Cup quarter-final early in the 1983/84 season.
It was a chilly Wednesday night, and Arthur Bunting sent me and Trevor Skerrett on as substitutes with a few minutes left.
Kevin Harkin made a break, I managed to support him, and he put me in under the posts, allowing me to join our French winger Patrick Solal (two), the great Dave Topliss and Kiwi centre James Leuluai on the scoresheet with Welsh back Paul Prendiville’s conversions helping us win 30-8.
We went on to edge out Leeds in the semi-finals, then beat Castleford in the final at Elland Road, where I picked up my first medal.
Of course a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, for both me and Keighley, and my spell there, while not that long ago, was before the current owners came in (and from my point of view, the less said about their predecessors the better).
Mike Smith and Mick O’Neill, the architects of the rollercoaster that was Cougarmania in the early nineties, are back, along with Mick’s son Ryan and his husband Kaue (Garcia).
They rescued the club from special measures in late 2018, and since then, have been slowly but surely building the Cougars up again, both on the pitch and, with plans to build a new stand, off it, and it’s great to see.
There’s a buzz about the place and home fans in the 2,182 crowd for the Hunslet game had smiles on their faces, and in the current climate, it’s good to see sport providing people with a bit of escapism and enjoyment.
Rhys, best remembered for his time in the Hull KR pack, works with Andrew Henderson, the former London Broncos coach (Rhys had a stint there, so knows him well, which is an important factor) and Warrington assistant.
It seems to be a successful combination, and their pair of them have been backed to make some eye-catching signings, such as halfback Dane Chisholm from Featherstone and Junior Sa’u, the former Samoa, New Zealand, Salford and Leigh centre, who have added some flair and know-how to an already-strong squad.
Both are the kind of players fans enjoy watching, and that’s telling, because while Keighley can do the tough stuff, entertainment through playing attractive rugby is the key to the Cougars’ approach.
It was the same in the early nineties, but as I said earlier, let’s not call it Cougarmania mark two, because while Mike and Mick have a lot of experience to call on, they are not ones for living in the past, and this is a different era for both the club the game.
What is the same is the ambition and desire to move the club forward and get the local community on board, and it’s clear everyone involved in the ownership knows that given the uncertainty over future league structure and funding, it’s important to be challenging in the Championship next season.
The Cougars are certainly on course to be playing in the second tier for the first time since 2014, then it’s down to suitably strengthening the squad in a bid to be competitive at that level.
Barrow have shown that can be done, so can the Cougars follow their example? I think so.
And under this ownership, it will be fun finding out.
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