The draw for the third round of the Challenge Cup was made yesterday, the stage of the competition where community sides that have made it through two or three previous rounds get the opportunity to face off with professional opponents from the Championship divisions. The games won’t actually be played until the weekend of March 5-6th, but I for one am already excited at the prospect of one or two cup upsets.
Granted there never seem to be that many upsets in the Challenge Cup, but in most recent seasons at least one NL2 / Championship 1 side seems to have come unstuck against amateur opposition.
Last season’s unfortunates were Doncaster, unbelievably suffering a 26-0 defeat at the hands of Siddal at the Keepmoat Stadium. In 2009 it was London Skolars who were beaten 14-12 by Wath Brow Hornets at the Recreation Ground, while Swinton Lions nearly endured a similar ignominy, having to come from 6-4 down at half time to post a 10-6 win over Siddal at The Shay.
This is the sort of thing in sport that is legitimately exciting, especially if the amateur side is then drawn against Super League opposition. Last month, in the FA Cup, Crawley Town became the first non-league side to reach the fifth round in 17 years courtesy of a 1-0 win over Torquay and, which is more, they landed an away tie with Manchester Utd. That, rightly, was headline news. In our game, Wath Brow got the opportunity to play against London Broncos in 2000, taking an early lead before losing 44-18, while in 2006 Thornhill Trojans travelled to Perpignan only to suffer a 66-0 defeat at the hands of the Catalans Dragons.
Siddal have proved tricky opposition for professional sides in recent years, and are currently fourth in the NCL Premier League. They will be relishing the opportunity to take on Widnes Vikings this time around, especially as the Vikings may have a place in Super League confirmed by the end of March. However, you would not expect Dennis Betts’ men to slip up, not even against a side of Siddal’s quality.
Wath Brow Hornets are the other amateur side that causes problems for professional opponents, but they were knocked out in the second round by Cumbrian rivals Egremont Rangers. Rangers now have the opportunity to emulate the Hornets when they travel to Tottenham to take on London Skolars. As well as losing to Wath Brow the Skolars also lost to Simms Cross in 2003, and thus far this season they’ve suffered big defeats at the hands of Widnes and Doncaster. Egremont, by contrast, are in top form at the moment, so it will be no surprise if they can book a place in the fourth round.
Doncaster will be very apprehensive given their recent history – as well as last year’s defeat to Siddal they were ran very close by Queens in 2009 – and this year they face current NCL Premier leaders Thatto Heath Crusaders. Swinton also have a tricky tie when they take on East Hull, presently sixth in the NCL Premier League. Lions fans will remember being beaten 26-14 by East Hull at this stage in 2004. That said, Swinton are in much better form at the moment, nearly beating Halifax on the opening weekend of the Northern Rail Cup.
Gateshead Thunder, by sharp contrast, are in absolutely terrible form at the moment, losing 82-0 to Workington Town last Sunday. They will be very nervous about facing NCL Division One Milford Marlins, who caused something of an upset in round two by beating Premier League Skirlaugh. Hunslet Hawks have lost both of their opening games, and will be very cautious at the visit of Warrington Wizards, current RLC National champions, who last year pushed Swinton all the way at Wilderspool.
There are five or six fixtures then with the potential to end in an upset and see an amateur side into the fourth round, or at least give a Championship side a bit of a fright. Hopefully at least one or two will make it through, getting the opportunity to test themselves against Super League opposition. In 2003 Halton Simms Cross were drawn at Wigan Warriors. Simmies led 1-0 after six minutes thanks to a 30-metre drop goal from Brian Capewell, and even though they went on to lose 82-3 that game is no doubt one of the highlights of those players’ rugby league careers.
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