Wembley trail continues for grass roots sides

THE second round of the 2024 Betfred Challenge Cup has thrown up some intriguing pairings – none more so than the tie between North West Men’s League luminaries Orrell St James (who beat Haresfinch in the first round in a televised thriller) and York Acorn, of the Impact Performance National Conference League.
In a sense, the wheel has turned full circle for Orrell’s head coach Sean McHugh, who said: “We’ve played York Acorn before in the Challenge Cup, back in the 1993/94 season, when we drew at their place and won the replay on our own patch. I played in those games, when my dad, Dennis, was coach, and it’s great that I’m now coaching against them, with my lad Jack our side.
“Obviously Acorn will be favourites, as an NCL Premier Division team, and they will certainly present a tough challenge. But there’s plenty of life outside the NCL, fine competition though it is. We choose not to apply for membership, largely because of the potential distances involved and the cost of travel, not to mention the impact on players, given that these days many people have to work on Saturdays and Sundays.”
He continued: “We’ve recent experience of playing other Conference sides, and last year we were beating professionals Midlands Hurricanes until late on. The fact that we’ve a first round game under our belts, and a tough one at that, will stand us in good stead. Much has been made that we had a lighter bench against Haresfinch, which was partly tactical, while another factor was that it was our best 17 on the day, while we do like to play attractive rugby.”
The Sportsman will again be broadcasting live and the game will be played on Sunday, with a 2.00pm kick off. McHugh said: “The fact that we’re on tv again is fantastic for the club. Last week’s coverage by The Sportsman was superb and certainly helped get the community interested. For example, pensioners can’t always get down, but were able to watch the match in their own homes, and one or two of our lads who are in Australia were also able to enjoy the game.” Their interest perhaps illustrates what the Saints are about, McHugh insisting: “We try to breed from within and the high-profile coverage send out the message to our juniors that they don’t have to sign on a Scholarship, or turn professional, to make an impact. They can thrive in Rugby League by playing for their local club, Orrell St James.”
York Acorn are under no illusions as to the task ahead. Head coach Josh Mortimer said: “It’s going to be tough for us, they’re a good side as they demonstrated in the first round. They looked to be a team that knew what they were about, and were very well coached. They play a lot of switches and that works great against unprepared teams. They’ve got some very impressive middles, their prop Kye Siani was very good and deserved the man of the match award. It’s going to be our first hit out so if we’re going to get anything from the game we’re going to have to do it tough. But our fans will be buzzing, it’s a Sunday, it’s on TV, and it’s somewhere they haven’t been for a long time, so it’s exciting for them.”
He continued: “We’re going to have a few changes from the side that played for us the majority of last year, a few players have retired or have other commitments at this time of the year, so it’s good that other lads will get a chance.
“I know that many people will be expecting us to win, perhaps comfortably, but I don’t see it that way. We’ve been working on changing our structure for attack and that will take time, so I’m not expecting a polished performance from us, but if we can build for the season starting in March and get a win, I’ll be buzzing.”
The other televised second round tie will involve Leigh Miners Rangers and Stanningley – both of the NCL’s First Division – and will be streamed live on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport online on Saturday, from 12.20pm.
The Miners are making the event extra special by inviting players who featured in the Challenge Cup `derby’ in 1979 between the Miners (then known as Leigh Miners Welfare) and the town’s professionals (then simply `Leigh’ rather than Leigh Leopards) to the game. The Miners went pretty close 45 years ago, losing only 23-10, and although they have home advantage against Stanningley, the visitors have the advantage of having a match behind them, having prevailed 40-4 in the first round tie at South Wales Jets.
The west Leeds outfit’s Paul Townend said: “We are excited and proud to be involved in the second round. The tie presents an opportunity for both ourselves and Leigh Miners to showcase amateur Rugby League on such an inspiring stage whilst being on the BBC.
“Players want to be playing in the big games, following their childhood dreams and this gives both teams that opportunity, with the added incentive of the winner possibly going on to play a professional club.”
Head coach Ashton Golding added: “It’s a privilege to take the field against Leigh Miners – a founding member of the NCL – and in such a prestigious competition as the Challenge Cup.
“It’s reward for the continued work the players, coaches, staff, volunteers and supporters put into the club to maintain our values and high standards. As a club we provide a pathway for our junior players, giving all the opportunity to fulfil their potential both as players and people who may aspire to also play on such a stage further into their playing careers.
“We are greatly looking forward to sharing the stage with Leigh Miners and hope for a great game and a great spectacle for the viewing public.”
One of two attractive ties in the capital will involve Wests Warriors, of the Southern Conference League, against NCL outfit Rochdale Mayfield. The Warriors beat Yorkshire Men’s League high fliers Newsome Panthers at the opening stage and head coach Kim Parkinson admitted: “The squad are still riding the high after last week’s win, but we know Mayfield are going to be a very tough physical side and that we will need to play at our very best if we want to progress to round three.
“Rochdale are one of the leading clubs in the NCL’s Premier Division so we would be silly to take them lightly and not prepare as best we can. But there’s a buzz around the club with big numbers at training, so hopefully we can compete and put out another strong performance.”
Player Chris Watkins added: “The boys are really excited to test ourselves against one of the best amateur teams in the country. There’s a really good feeling around the club at the moment, everyone’s working hard at training and pushing each other for spots.” And supporter Paul Quill enthused: “This is what you dream of as a Rugby League fan, a fixture to showcase everything that is GREAT about this, OUR ultimate cup competition. The Best of the South against the Best of the North, M25 v M62, both sides have a great pedigree in the Challenge Cup. It’s the game of the round, there’s absolutely no doubt about it.”
Mayfield PRO Shelley Wood said: “We have again been unlucky in the draw and Wests Warriors away is not a good draw to say the least. Wests are very much an unknown quantity to the Rochdale lads, although their resounding win over Newsome Panthers means they are definitely no slouches.”
Chair Neil Ramsden said: “Once again we are on the road, with a four-hour journey. It’s not a trip I’m looking forward to, but I am definitely looking forward to the game and there is no doubt we will make it a cracking day out. We have a few quality new signings and I can’t wait to get a look at how they perform in the side. Lewis Sheridan and Zac Baker learned their trade with us and are now back in the fold after their stints in the professional game. We also welcome Sean Slater, a very promising young hooker and halfback, who should fit in really well with the side we have at the moment.
“We beat Cornwall away last season before going down to Newcastle in a game which we felt we could have won, so we have no worries about this game. We will go anywhere and play anywhere, just put a team in front of us and we will play them, whoever they are.”
He concluded: “Obviously, as chairman, I also need to think of the logistics of the game and the financial implications. The coach alone is just short of £2,000 and we have to try and recoup that money but hopefully we will return to Rochdale with a win under our belts and the lads will put some money over the bar. The first one will be on me though!”
Sam Butterworth who, with Stephen Wood, is coach, said: “This is a tough draw, not the best for the club, but we are going to London to get the win.
“This will be our first hit out as the weather and referee availability put paid to our plans for a warm up game. That said, the lads have been training hard, we only had a short break and they have really put in some good work through December before stepping up a gear in January. We will put in a big week’s prep in the week before the match, and believe me when I say we will be match ready come game day. We have our three big signings raring to go, these are three quality players with Rugby League in their blood and they have signed here for one reason, to win things. Hopefully that will start on Saturday.”
Committee member Andy Downham-Clarke said: “I was a late starter with Rugby League, having always been a football man. That changed after my eldest, Harry, played his first game against Woolston. I was hooked, it’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life. It really is the greatest game and the Challenge Cup is the greatest competition.
“I’ve been part of the committee at Mayfield for three years now and it’s been a real eye opener to see the work that goes on behind the scenes. There is a real buzz at the club, not just on match days but the whole year round, it never stops. Being in the Challenge Cup is like the icing on the cake, the reward for all the hard work.
“Saturday’s game will be a tough one, Wests will be no pushovers, that’s for sure, they proved that against Newsome. On the whole we’d like to think we will have too much for them and we will be coming back to Rochdale with a place in the third round draw secured.”
Also in the capital, Hammersmith Hills Hoists entertain another NCL top flight outfit in West Bowling, who topped Division One last year. Official Ricc Caligiuri said: “We’re really excited to get the opportunity to test ourselves against one of the strongest sides. There aren’t too many left at the club from when we last faced West Bowling in 2019, but they were a young, hungry and energetic team and you could tell they were on the rise. We’ve been following their progress from the NCL’s Second Division to the Premier Division over the last four years, they’ve managed to keep a core group of players and it’s definitely something we admire.
“This year, we’re hoping the result of the match goes a little differently. We’ve had our best preparation for the Challenge Cup ever, and there’s a really positive energy in the group after struggling throughout the covid period and going through a massive re-build, one that saw us finish last in the SCL in 2022 to winning it in 2023.
“This shows both the resilience of the club and the culture within it, with so many people wanting to be involved in taking us further than we’ve ever been in the competition. It’s going to be an interesting matchup and as the saying goes, styles makes fights, and we hope our antipodean inspired approach to the game will win out. With the weather forecasted at a `tropical’ 11 degrees down south, we’ll hope that conditions will favour us, and we can progress to the next round.”
The Bradford outfit’s secretary Dave Brook said: “Firstly, we’d like to congratulate Hammersmith Hill Hoists for reaching the second round for the first time in the history of the club.
“The club and lads are really looking forward to this tie, it’ll be something a bit different with a later kick off at 5.00pm but the coach journey of four or five hours isn’t too alien to us as we travel up to Cumbria two or three times a season.
“We came out 42-12 victors in 2019 but that doesn’t mean anything as our team has progressed, and no doubt so has theirs. We cannot be complacent and will not underestimate our opponents. We’re looking to progress and the carrot of potentially drawing a League 1 or Championship club in the next round is a good incentive.”
Head coach John Williams added: “We know it won’t be easy, but we’ll go there ready to play. The lads have trained well and are all looking forward to the challenge that lays ahead.”
Clock Face Miners’ reward for the impressive win over NCL Premiers Heworth in the first round is another home tie against top-flight bigwigs, this time in the shape of Siddal. The Miners are currently in Division One and head coach Mark Costello said: “Preparations have gone well since the victory over Heworth.
“I and my coaching team are going to have a real headache picking the side, with three or four quality players being available to us who we didn’t have in round one.
“Siddal are a quality team who move the ball around well and have quality strike players. We know the game is going to be a big challenge but with a young bullish energy about us and the support of the local crowd we aim to give them a very tough game.
“I am hoping for a big performance from our boys, to do themselves and the club proud and enjoy playing in this historic competition!”
Captain Lewis Geraghty added: “I know I can speak on behalf of all the players when I say we are all buzzing about facing Siddal. Being at home and having a big crowd last time out really pushed us on and we know that we will have that same backing again on Saturday. We’ve played many Premier Division teams before in cup competitions and friendlies and have come out on top, so we know what to expect from a team like Siddal. We played them for the first time in our first ever Challenge Cup game, back in 2019, but we’ve massively grown as a club since then and got stronger and stronger. I know that every player feels confident and is raring to go to hopefully reverse the result of our previous encounter.”
Siddal secretary Joe McCormack said: “We are pleased to get back to some playing action as the squad will have been in training for eight weeks by the time the game is played, so from that perspective we are ready to see the level we are at.
“Clock Face already have that first game under their belt so that’s our initial challenge to overcome. Siddal have always entered this competition for the experience that it offers. Over the past few years we have been lucky enough to play against quite a few pro sides, which does help in preparation for the NCL starting up and provides special memories for the whole club. Gone are the days of Siddal expecting to make lots of money from entering the Challenge Cup, but a good run helps to set most amateur clubs up for the season ahead, and it’s the same for us.
“We know that we have a tough game ahead of us, as we played away to Clock Face about five years ago. They have a great home support who get right behind their team, but at the same time the hospitality they extended to us on our previous visit was first class. Their win against Heworth last time out shows that they have quality in their ranks. Our coaches, Gareth English and Jake Connor, have been putting the Siddal squad through their paces for some time now, with this game in mind. Training is going well and numbers in attendance have been up, which means there is plenty of competition for a place in the 17 chosen for the Clock Face tie. The atmosphere at the game is going to be fantastic and we are taking plenty of our own supporters to St Helens.
“We will be showing Clock Face the respect we give every Premier Division team we play against, and we are looking forward to the challenge that we know lies ahead.”
FRYSTON, who accounted for the British Army in the first round, are at home to NCL champions Hunslet ARLFC. It’s a tough challenge for the Castleford-based Pennine League outfit but long-serving committeeman Wayne Jones said: “We had such a great occasion against the Army and we are looking for more of the same this week.
“We are very aware of the following that Hunslet bring and we are hoping we can provide the best hospitality we can to the best amateur club in country. Hopefully the lads can get the win and get us into that hat for the next round.”
Head coach Bradley Roberts added: “I can’t wait for the match. Hunslet are at the top of the amateur game and a team that every other amateur side aspires to be like. It’s going to be a real test for our lads, probably one like they’ve never had before. But we coaches are more than confident that they can give a great account of themselves and hopefully cause the upset of the round. Fingers crossed that the Fryston faithful can get behind us and really be the difference, as we’ve had previously.”
Captain Rhys Bonser said: “After successfully reaching the second round of the Challenge Cup in back-to- back years, we are looking to go one step further. We have been given a task that some people could describe as impossible, however we’ve been in this situation before! After recently playing Hunslet in October, given our own poor game management, we weren’t 1,000 miles away. We also watched them in the recent Yorkshire Cup Final and have highlighted weak areas that we will look to exploit. No matter the division we are in, we don’t go down without a fight, and this time around we are confident we can book our place in round three.”
Halfback Leyton Davies said: “It will be a real test again Hunslet, who are the best amateur team in the country. I think the game will be end-to-end, with the teams chipping away at each other. With the crowd behind us, like they are every game, I think we will have a really good chance to get on top and get the win.”
Supporter Ben Shaw said: “I feel the game will be electric from start to finish, with both teams wanting to prove they have what it takes to get through to the next round; Fryston, a young team with the fitness, desire and drive to prove themselves as a mature well-structured team challenging the older heads of Hunslet. If Fryston play to their strengths I believe that they can put on a brilliant show and progress through to the next round, which would be massive. Hopefully the boys can put on a good show and get into that third round.”
Doncaster Toll Bar, who beat Ashton Bears at the opening stage, welcome West Hull who are a power in the NCL. Head coach Ian Tattersall said: “This is a real proud moment for everyone involved at the club. Our first round performance was decent and good enough to get the job done but we’re under no illusions. We know the size of the challenge that West Hull pose us, they’re a power house in the amateur game and we’ll need to be at our absolute best to have any chance. That said, we can’t wait for it, it’s a challenge for sure but we’ll prepare well and hopefully perform.
“There was a big crowd last time out and hopefully it’ll be the same again, they’ll get behind us and I’m sure that will give the lads a boost.”
Chairman Wayne Morton added: “What a fantastic game of rugby we had in the first round. For the lads to come back from being behind, keep their heads up and push for the win was amazing to see. Thank you to everyone who came out and supported the lads, I know it makes a massive difference to them.
“Ashton came with a strong team and took the first half but our strength and resilience came together at the right time and with some great plays and skill came through for the win. Now we move on, for the first time in the club’s history, into round two. This is going to be a big test, against a good team. Good luck to the players – go out there and work hard for another win. This really has to be up there with some of our very best moments.”
Lock Lane, long-term mainstays of the NCL’s top flight, are at home to surprise packets Edinburgh Eagles, who won at Cumbrians Lowca in the first round. Chair Mick Wildey said: “We are looking forward to our tie, it’s new territory for us, I don’t think we’ve ever played a team from Scotland before, so they are an unknown quantity to us.
“We are looking forward to getting back to playing after the turmoil of the off season, with head coach Paul Couch going and Coner Turner, who we appointed in his place, jumping ship to Dewsbury Rams just before Christmas.
“That meant searching for a new coach again but we are really pleased to have appointed ex-Batley and Featherstone player Gavin Swinson. The lads have really responded well to pre-season and are looking forward to carrying on our tradition of doing well in the Challenge Cup.”
He concluded: “We are taking nothing for granted and are preparing for a really tough game. It’s our first of the season so we will be a bit rusty. We hope the weather is kind to us and we get a good crowd down to what should be a great cup tie.”
Edinburgh’s Andrew McPhail said: “The Eagles are delighted to have made the second round. This is the third time we have reached this stage and now we have an opportunity to make history as the first Edinburgh team to make round three. If that happens, maybe it might get Eagles and Rugby League noticed in our nation where the definition of sport is noun `football’.
“Our journey is not only about chasing domestic success, but changing any perception in the Rugby League community of being a team you want to draw in the Challenge Cup to becoming the side you want to avoid.
“Our victory against Lowca was another step in that journey, and whilst winning on the day was solely down to the current players and coaching team, it would be remiss not to mention the hard work and dedication of others in the past few years who helped to improve the playing standards at the club.
“The match against Lock Lane is also a reward to our growing band of social media followers and supporters, and give us an opportunity to attract new followers and fans.”
He concluded: “We are the underdogs and it’s a massive challenge to play an NCL Premier team, although one we are looking forward to. We have received reports on Lock Lane and their danger players but ultimately we have no reason to change our style as we look to put in another good performance. As long as we do that, who knows what will happen?”
Hull Dockers, of the NCL’s First Division, are at home to Wath Brow Hornets. Secretary Stan Pickering said: “We are without a first team coach, despite asking several people. Players are, therefore, reticent to register with us. However, we will have a team to play Wath Brow who, it’s fair to say, are one of the top outfits in the Premier Division.
“At this stage of the year it’s difficult to make any predictions as most NCL teams would be in the early stages of pre-season and are not match fit as such. We will certainly be going all out to make things difficult for the Cumbrian side and hope to show ourselves in a positive light.”
Thatto Heath Crusaders, of the NCL’s top flight, are at the Royal Navy, who pulled off an impressive win at the RAF in the first round. The Crusaders’ team manager David Sharples said: “We are looking forward to the trip, even if a 500-mile round trip is a bit daunting. Hopefully the journey back up North will be a bit easier, with a victory and a place in the third round.”
Head coach Mike Woods and his side will be setting off for Portsmouth at around 6.00am on Sunday morning and he said: “The long trip there and back will be a good experience for our players, some of whom are new to the club or have returned to us. We’ve already had a training run against Rochdale Hornets and have another due on Thursday against Salford Reserves. The Navy looked very resilient against the RAF, who had looked the better side for much of the game. That match will have stood them in good stead, while this is our first outing of the year; but this is a very prestigious competition, and is also important for us as we build towards the NCL season.”
Betfred Challenge Cup (round two)
Saturday 27 January 2024

Clock Face Miners v Siddal (1.30pm)
Doncaster Toll Bar v West Hull (1.30pm)
Fryston Warriors v Hunslet ARLFC (2.00pm)
Hammersmith Hills Hoists v West Bowling (5.00pm) CHECK
Hull Dockers v Wath Brow Hornets (2.00pm)
Leigh Miners Rangers v Stanningley (12.30pm)
Lock Lane v Edinburgh Eagles (2.00pm)
Wests Warriors v Rochdale Mayfield (2.00pm)
Sunday 28 January 2024
Orrell St James v York Acorn (2.00pm)
Royal Navy v Thatto Heath Crusaders (12.30pm)