How an open-minded culture is spearheading Keighley’s League 1 push

James Messenger

Photo courtesy of Keighley Cougars

As far as off-season recruitment goes, Keighley’s preparation for the new League 1 campaign has been nothing less than astute. 

The West Yorkshire outfit are preparing for their first full season under Rhys Lovegrove, the former Hull KR, London Broncos and Bradford forward.

Lovegrove, 33, has set about reinvigorating the Cougars’ playing roster having been brought to the club five months after it was taken over by a consortium led by chairman Mick O’Neill MBE

Despite facing the dilemma of an uncertain transfer market, largely caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lovegrove has sought out numerous experienced faces to bolster Keighley’s upwards progression. 

Creating an “expressive” Cougars culture

Keighley’s new signing Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e

So far, 10 new recruits have arrived at Cougar Park since November. This includes former Halifax half-back Scott Murrell, Newcastle Thunder duo Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e and Brenden Santi, and Papua New Guinea international Wellington Albert

They add to a side already featuring Jake Webster, a player with more than 300 NRL and Super League games under his belt.

Keighley’s squad might be shaping up nicely on paper, but it’s the players’ attitude off the field that really encapsulates the inclusive environment that Lovegrove is trying to create. 

He said: “We’ve had a very clear vision over the past couple of years about exactly what we want to achieve here at Keighley, and first and foremost the type of people that we want to bring in.

“In today’s current climate, it’s even more important to get the right kinds of people in your organisation. 

“We have a lot of very open-minded players that are very expressive and up-to-date with issues. It’s really great to have that diverse approach to wider society which we encourage.

“We were lucky that a core senior group became available; players like Scott Murrell, QLT, Jake Webster, Brandon Santi that I thought could really adapt to that well and implement (my ideas) within the playing group.”

Old connections restored

Wakefield’s Danny Sculthorpe tackled by Hull KR’s Rhys Lovegrove, Scott Murrell and Michael Dobson

The capture of experienced playmaker Scott Murrell is a real coup for the Cougars. Not only that, it’s also a move that reunites former brothers in arms.

Lovegrove and Murrell were Hull KR team-mates for six seasons back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, first under the coaching of Justin Morgan and then briefly under Craig Sandercock. 

Murrell – two years senior to his new head coach – has been handed the number 15 shirt for the new season, and Lovegrove is expecting big things from the 35-year-old.

Lovegrove said: “It’s interesting that everyone talks about what he does on the field. I’ve known Scott for a while now, and it’s what he brings off the field which is a real strength.

“But he’s been doing it for a long time now at the top of his game, so I’m really excited to see how he can get the best out of the players within the group. 

“In the limited time that we’ve had, he’s made a big impact already, so we’re really happy to get him down here. He’s in the best shape I’ve seen him in a long time.

“We’re obviously looking at growing this club, and if we look at where Keighley were two years ago, it’s unrecognisable now. 

“To follow that progression, we need the right sorts of people driving (us forward). Muzza’s at the heart of that.”

New season, new expectations

By his own admittance, Lovegrove’s first full season at the helm has been a long time coming. 

Like many, the Cougars have gone over 12 months within a taste of competitive action and are itching to return. Their first game of the new League 1 season, at home to Doncaster, is scheduled for May 9, six weeks after their Challenge Cup first round visit to London Broncos.

But it’s the unknown quantities in the division – the likes of former Wales rugby union star Gavin Henson, now at West Wales Raiders, and the shrewd purchases of many others – that have really caught Lovegrove’s eye. 

Gavin Henson in action for Wales RU

With the newly-formed Ottawa Aces deferring their entry into League 1 until 2022 and Newcastle promoted to fill the vacant 12th spot in the Championship, it really is all to play for. 

Lovegrove added: “Traditionally there’s been a bit of a gap between the top and the bottom (of League 1).

“I think that with the two big spenders in Ottawa and Newcastle coming off the top, and Coventry and West Wales recruiting so well, it’s certainly going to bring the whole group a lot closer together.

“We’re going to rock up on game day with a clear plan of what we want to execute and what we want to achieve, and we’ll see where those results get us.”

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