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Upfront: The League Express opinion – Mon 15th March 2021

Sheffield Eagles and York City Knights last played competitively on March 15, 2020.

The Eagles beat Workington Town 34-18 while the City Knights were 70-12 winners over Rochdale, both making the sixth round of the Challenge Cup.

The following evening, the draw was made, each getting a plum home tie, Sheffield versus Hull and York against Castleford.

Of course neither match, which in normal circumstances would have provided a very welcome financial windfall, took place, nor did any others involving Championship or League 1 clubs for the remainder of the season.

It’s been a testing and worrying twelve months, with fears that some clubs might not survive the pandemic.

We’re not our of the woods yet, and it’s to be hoped the return of spectators to grounds from May 17 onwards progresses without problems.

In the meantime, every Championship side bar Toulouse, and League 1 trio Barrow, Keighley and West Wales, will finally return to action in the first round of this season’s Challenge Cup.

It all starts on Friday, when Sheffield and York meet at the Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster, the Eagles’ home until their own Olympic Legacy Park is brought up to the required standard.

It seems somehow fitting that Sheffield, Rugby League’s great survivors, are involved in the first competitive game of what everyone wants to be an uninterrupted domestic season during which all clubs are able to get back on their feet as far as possible.

Of course the Eagles also have a bit of Challenge Cup history, having pulled off one of the biggest surprises in the competition’s long and illustrious history in defeating Wigan 17-8 in the Wembley final of 1998.

The original club in York made it to the national stadium in 1931, losing 22-8 to Halifax.

Perhaps it’s a bit too much to expect the City Knights to repeat that feat of reaching the final.

But with a sparkling new home at the LNER Community Stadium, which staged Rugby League for the first time when Hull visited on Thursday, and some very impressive additions to a squad coached by the much-admired James Ford, these are undoubtedly exciting times for the code in the minster city.

Other intriguing first-round ties include London Broncos against Keighley, who like York have bounced back after coming a little too close to the edge of the cliff for comfort, West Wales versus seven-times Challenge Cup winners Widnes and a repeat of the 1973 final between Featherstone, who were 33-14 victors 48 years ago, and Bradford.

Bring it on!

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