How Challenge Cup can spur on expansion teams

James Gordon
Challenge Cup Wembley SWpix

Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix

The Challenge Cup gets underway this weekend and for some, even participating in the first round can have a big impact.

A total of 36 teams from the community game across the UK and Ireland will look to reach the second round, where they could face semi-professional opposition from League 1.

The Championship teams enter at the third round stage, with the exception of Toulouse who are not participating, but it is the sixth round before the 12 Super League teams join.

This year’s final will be at Wembley on August 12, as part of a historic double header with the women’s Challenge Cup final.

First round reach

The 18 first round games range from Edinburgh all the way to Portsmouth, with ties in Aldershot, Brentwood and Chiswick in between.

The armed forces teams join the Scottish, Irish and Welsh champions along with English sides outside the National Conference League Premier Division. 10 NCL Premier clubs join in the second round.

In Scotland, it’s National Conference League Saddleworth Rangers who have the tricky task of facing Edinburgh Eagles in a game that will be broadcast live on BBC Sport.

The derby clash between Wigan St Pats and Ince Rose Bridge is being streamed live on The Sportsman.

The Challenge Cup provides an exciting opportunity, especially for expansion sides, to play in a historic tournament and tackle sides they wouldn’t usually get chance to play against.

Of course, the quirk of the draw means that sometimes that isn’t the case – like when North Herts Crusaders landed their Southern Conference League rivals London Chargers.

Chairman Josh Dell told the 13 Pro-Am podcast: “I can’t lie there was a some mixed emotions I suppose when we were drawn against a team that we play season after season!

“But I think at the same time that also adds an element of excitement. You know we would have all loved to go to an unknown opponent – make a bit of a tour of it you know, really enjoy the weekend. But, I actually think coming up against a team that we face every season, we know what a competitive outfit they are. That adds a whole new dimension to it.

“We are seeing it as a local derby. You know we’ve always had good respect for Chargers. I’m sure they have great respect for us as well.”

Challenge Cup spurs on expansion clubs

North Herts Crusaders have never beaten the Chargers, a record they will be hoping to change this Saturday.

It’s the second time they have featured in the Challenge Cup, losing to the Royal Air Force in 2019.

Dell added: “For a lot of the lads it was the highest standard that any of them have played at and it was a really a huge honour.

“It’s safe to say that once we had a taste for it, we definitely wanted more so following that when we were then given the opportunity to move from the Eastern Premier to the Southern Conference League it was a no brainer for us to take that opportunity and really go for that step up.

“I see no reason why this time round we can’t make it to the second round of the Challenge Cup and for future seasons I’d love to make it a regular thing following the likes of Chargers and Wests. They’re also in the Southern Conference League and have made the Challenge Cup several times.

“I want us to be that team. I want us to be every year competing for a Challenge Cup place.”

The prestige of participating in the Challenge Cup has helped spur Crusaders, who celebrated 10 years as a club recently, on as a club too.

“It absolutely has, and I think it’s helped our growth to be honest I think we want to be competing at the highest level possible and to do that you have to attract really talented players.

“Really talented players want to be playing in competitions like the Challenge Cup. Why wouldn’t they? So for us, getting into it the first time, was a great first step into that.

“Getting into it this time, we hope will have the exact same effect where more and more players will look at us as being the team that they want to play for because they can see the year on year we’re getting stronger and stronger and that we can eventually like I say compete in the Challenge Cup every single year.”

Repeating history

As well as for the club sides, the Challenge Cup helps create something special for the armed forces teams.

The Royal Navy welcome Barrow Island for their first round clash, on the back of a historic run to the fourth round last season.

They defeated Bridgend Blue Bulls in the first round before winning an all services clash against the British Army in golden point extra time.

York Acorn were brushed aside 22-8 in the third round to set up a tie with professional side Batley Bulldogs, where the Navy lost 66-6 in front of a crowd of 1,271 at Mount Pleasant.

The Navy’s Darren Bamford said: “We didn’t get beat all year, apart from at Batley. I mean, it’s not a bad thing to say that you only got beat by a team that was effectively eighty minutes away from Super League last year. And to be fair, we put ourselves in a game, and we made a really good account of ourselves.

“Using that experience that we had playing against those sort of teams of the Challenge Cup, then put us on a really good path towards our Services victory.

“And we had a warm weather training camp as well. We went over to Catalan and we had a good few days out there. And there was training amongst other things like drinking and going out with the boys! And that’s something that, that’s vital for us.

“Lads, obviously, they’re away from families throughout the week. And they’re giving up times at the weekend too, sacrificing times with the family to just spend times with us. We want to make those times extra special. And we did that last year. And that’s something that I want to carry on – that tradition – we utilise that time together.”

The draw has already been made for the second round, which will take place on the weekend of February 25/26.

The Royal Navy would have a trip to North Wales Crusaders to look forward to if they can get past Barrow Island, while the winner of North Herts Crusaders’ ‘derby’ clash with London Chargers is a trip to either Skirlaugh or Wests Warriors.

The 13 Pro-Am Community Rugby League show, co-hosted by our very own Dave Parkinson, is available to download every Wednesday at 10.30pm.

2023 Challenge Cup first round

  • West Bowling v Waterhead (Sat, 11am)
  • Edinburgh Eagles v Saddleworth Rangers (Sat, 1.15pm)
  • Brentwood Eels v Bedford Tigers (Sat, 1.30pm)
  • Royal Navy v Barrow Island (Sat, 1.30pm)
  • Skirlaugh v Wests Warriors (Sat, 1.30pm)
  • Westgate Common v Crosfields (Sat, 1.30pm)
  • British Army v Ashton Bears (Sat, 2pm)
  • Distington v Orrell St James (Sat, 2pm)
  • Doncaster Toll Bar v Royal Air Force (Sat, 2pm)
  • Featherstone Lions v Great Britain Police (Sat, 2pm)
  • Fryston Warriors v Thornhill Trojans (Sat, 2pm)
  • Hull Dockers v Rhondda Outlaws (Sat, 2pm)
  • Stanningley v Milford (Sat, 2pm)
  • London Chargers v North Herts Crusaders (Sat, 2.30pm)
  • Wigan St Pats v Ince Rose Bridge (Sat, 2.30pm)
  • Hammersmith Hills Hoists v Dublin City Exiles (Sat, 5pm)
  • Heworth v Oulton Raiders (Sun, 12pm)
  • Jarrow Vikings v Myton Warriors (Sun, 1.30pm)

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