The road to Wembley for the 2006 Powergen Challenge Cup final began today with the cup's Preliminary Round. Already the public has responded to the final's return to its traditional home and over 10,000 tickets have already been sold.
Highly unlikely to reach the showpiece occasion at the national stadium, the thirty two sides in the Preliminary Round draw were following the dream of reaching the third round and possibly being drawn against one of the professional sides.
Arguably the biggest upset of the round came courtesy of Gloucestershire Warriors' trip to Halifax to face Illingworth. Despite suffering a cup record 120-4 defeat at the hands of Rochdale Hornets at the third round stage last season, Pennine League Illingworth were strong favourites to end the RL Conference side's cup run. However the Warriors, who qualified courtesy of a runners-up spot in last season's RL Conference Regional Grand Final, secured a famous 25-24 win to reach the first round proper.
The closest thing to a derby in this year's Preliminary Round was at Bradford-based Clayton, who took on the Leeds Metropolitan University. Leeds Met have shown themselves capable of upsets in recent years and Clayton are struggling without a league win in the Pennine League all season. However the Bradford side had just enough to defeat their neighbours 20-16.
The other university side in the draw were St Mary's University College, the first of three London sides to enter the cup, from Twickenham, an area that will be hosting Super League rugby with Harlequins RL next season. St Mary's had a tough draw away at Castleford Panthers, who are going strong in National Conference Division Two. The Panthers proved too strong, winning 40-20, but St Mary's could be proud of their achievements.
Seaton Rangers of Cumbria were looking for revenge against their visitors, Waterhead of Oldham. The last time the two sides met was in the GMB Union National Cup and the Oldham side secured a 16-14 last-minute win. However, this fixture was not as close and Rangers won 30-6 without too much difficulty.
There were three other Cumbrian sides in the draw. Egremont, famous for their win over Workington Town in 1998, are currently struggling in the Cumberland league and their 14-32 loss to Halifax-based Ovenden was no surprise. Millom, currently mid-table in NCL Division Two, lost narrowly 18-22 to table-topping Widnes St Maries. The third side, Kells, currently third in the Cumberland League, defeated Pennine League leaders Drighlington 44-20.
Leeds Rhinos centre Keith Senior, who was a beaten finalist in the 2005 cup final, was back in Challenge Cup action coaching his Huddersfield Sharks side. The Sharks, currently mid-table in NCL Division Two, had a tough draw against Barrow Island, winners of the Cumbria Cup and sitting top of the pile in the NW Counties Premier Division. The Islanders racked up an impressive 44-10 win and Senior tasted Challenge Cup defeat again.
Lancashire County Cup winners Blackbrook, from St Helens, travelled to Wakefield to take on Yorkshire League contenders Upton, winning 30-12. However, Yorkshire Cup winners Sharlston Rovers, also from Wakefield, suffered an upset in Oldham, losing 28-22 to Saddleworth Rangers after extra time.
Struggling York-based side Heworth put up some resistance against NCL Division Two contenders Stanley Rangers but eventually succumbed to a 24-18 defeat. Halton Simms Cross, currently second in the NW Counties Premier Division, travelled to Leeds to face Stanningly, winning 34-2. Normanton Knights of Wakefield, at the moment struggling in NCL Division Two, while their opponents, Hull-based Embassy, are enjoying a decent spell in the Humberside League. However, the Knights triumphed 30-4.
Bank Quay Bulls of Warrington, mid-table in the NW Counties Premier League defeated Elland of Halifax 32-6. Another Warrington side, Crosfields, who are currently third in NCL Division Two, saw off Leeds-based Queens 20-8. The game between Bransholme and Scottish champions Royal Scots Steelers was awarded to the Hull-based side.
The preliminary round provided all the excitement we have come to expect from the Challenge Cup. Sixteen sides have won their way through to face sides from the top two National Conference leagues, five teams from LHF National League Three and The Army, The Navy and The RAF in the First Round proper in February.
As these sides embark on the road to Wembley one thing is certain – it's going to be thrilling stuff.