Northern Rail Cup Preview
Saturday February 12
Widnes Vikings v Toulouse Olympique (6.00pm)
Widnes Vikings’ coach Denis Betts expects a bruising battle with Toulouse Olympique in Saturday’s Northern Rail Cup fixture. Betts made a winning return to Rugby League coaching last week, steering Widnes to a 62-18 victory against London Skolars.
Betts said: “I really enjoyed being part of it all again. We looked pretty sharp at times. To score 11 tries is a massive achievement at any level, but I was a bit disappointed at times with some of our defence.”
And the former Wigan and Great Britain second row knows his side will have to improve against an Olympique team that edged past Dewsbury last week.
“I expect a very physical battle,” said Betts. “They’ve got some really good Australian boys that know how to play the game, and some big French blokes who’ll try to take it to us.”
Vikings have a couple of minor “bumps and bruises” but Betts is hopeful everyone will be given the all-clear during Thursday night’s training session.
Toulouse hope to claim a second win of 2011, but coach Gilles Dumas remains without three key players. Constant Villegas and Tim Wynn are both sidelined as they recover from knee reconstructions, while Rory Bromley (Achilles) faces up to another three months out.
Sunday February 13
Dewsbury Rams v Keighley Cougars (3.00pm)
Dewsbury Rams coach Warren Jowitt has been dealt a major blow after stand-off Pat Walker suffered a broken hand during last week’s 40-38 defeat in Toulouse.
Walker is now facing three months out. “It’s a big blow because he’s our main playmaker,” said Jowitt. “I’m now actively looking for a stand-off to provide cover.” Hooker Luke Blake could come back into the Rams’ side after training all week.
Jowitt said: “We let ourselves down defensively against Toulouse. We scored 38 points, so to not come away with a win is not great.”
On Keighley Cougars, Jowitt added: “They’ve got a new coach so they’ll play differently. I’m going to watch their DVD and break it down. Their pack hasn’t changed much, but they’ve got some new players and a new coach so it should be a very good test for us.”
Andy Shickell is Keighley’s only doubt, having suffered ankle and knee problems during the Cougars victory over Rochdale last week.
Keighley coach Jason Demetriou said: “I thought we did a lot of very good things in the game. Defensively we were excellent, and for a first competitive hit out it was a good start.”
However, the former Wakefield captain insists there is more to come. He added: “We showed that if we stick to the systems and execute them properly how simple the game can be. If the players are patient enough to stick to the systems for 80 minutes then we’ll do well.”
Doncaster RLFC v London Skolars (3.00pm)
Carl Hughes faces a late fitness test before Doncaster coach Tony Miller finalises his squad to face London Skolars. Hughes sprained his ankle two weeks ago and missed last week’s 54-10 defeat at Featherstone.
Skolars’ coach Joe Mbu believes his side’s difficult start to the season will prove to be a blessing in the long term. Mbu said: “I was encouraged with the performance from the players against Widnes last week.
“In order for us to be as good as we need to be, we need to play the best and find out what it takes to be up there. This year we’ve already played Harlequins, Wigan and now Widnes, and I believe that will put us on a good path.”
On Doncaster, Mbu added: “Doncaster will be tough opponents and they’ll provide a great test for us. For me, this game will show where we are at the moment. It will give me a bit more information on my squad.”
Skolars have no major injury concerns, although “one or two players have picked up minor niggles” according to Mbu.
Halifax RLFC v Oldham Roughyeds (3.00pm)
Halifax RLFC coach Matt Calland has a few selection headaches after tempting Graham Holroyd out of retirement with a player-coach role at The Shay.
Holroyd, 34, rejoined Halifax on Tuesday, while Makali Aizue (knee), Michael Ostick (knee) and Neil Cherryholme (groin) will be assessed later in the week.
Oldham Roughyeds coach Tony Benson could name an unchanged side from the team that beat Hunslet last week.
Benson said: “That win was a good sign, and there’d been good signs all through pre-season. We went up another level on Sunday.
“We’re not going to get more of a physical match than that. We had to be quite smart and technical and we stuck to that well.”
Benson has identified a particular area to work on ahead of Sunday’s trip to The Shay.
He said: “We’ve got a pretty good defence as it is, but we’ve a few areas we can fine tune. A couple of tries Hunslet’s tries last week were scored from kicks, so need to be better at defending those, because Halifax are the kind of team where if you can contain them, then you’ve got a good chance.”
Hunslet Hawks v Batley Bulldogs (3.00pm)
Paul March has told his Hunslet Hawks squad to improve its discipline – or face the consequences. The Hawks lost 28-22 at Oldham in their opening Northern Rail Cup fixture.
March said: “We went there with the full intention of coming away with a result, but we let ourselves down.
“We played for the first 15 minutes but ill-discipline cost us. We gave away 12 penalties and they were generally very silly things like not getting back onside. If we cut those out then we’ll improve.”
March has a fully fit squad to choose from, and is expected to make a few changes to his team in order to “give everyone a run out” in the early weeks of the season.
On Batley Bulldogs, March added: “They lost last weekend, so they’ll be desperate to get back on track and keep their Northern Rail Cup campaign alive.”
Bulldogs’ Dane Manning returns to Karl Harrison’s squad after completing a two-match suspension.
Harrison said: “I was bitterly disappointed (last week). Leigh dominated field position and we let ourselves down. We had effort and commitment, but a lack of direction and leadership.
“We’ve got to change our style of play because we’re away at Hunslet which is a small, postage-stamp sized pitch.”
Leigh Centurions v Swinton Lions (3.00pm)
Leigh Centurions continue to have a fully fit squad as they aim to take a second Northern Rail Cup scalp in seven days. Leigh were impressive in a 24-4 victory at Batley last week. Now Swinton Lions are in their sights.
Centurions’ assistant coach Paul Rowley said: “It was a great start for us. There wasn’t a bad performer on the pitch and I think we sent a few messages out.
“Batley’s a tough place to go but we were strong all over the park. It’ll be nice to get back on our home turf on Sunday.
“Swinton have a team full of ex-Leigh players, so there’ll be familiar faces. There should be some good individual battles and we’ll be going into the match very confident.”
Dana Wilson remains sidelined for Swinton, while Richard Flooks (knee) definitely won’t play on Sunday and Tommy Gallagher (knee) will have a late fitness test.
Lions’ coach Steve McCormack last week watched his side lose 28-22 against Halifax. He said: “I was encouraged but disappointed. We competed and probably should have beaten a really good Halifax side.
“I was really pleased with a lot of aspects of our play, but we need more composure and patience. If we get that, we’ll be alright. We just need to direct our efforts into being a little bit smarter.”
On facing Leigh, he added: “It’s another massive task. Leigh have started well, but as long as we keep improving, that’s the main thing. Leigh’s supporters are always very passionate and they’ll create a good atmosphere. We’re looking forward to going to one of the best stadiums outside of Super League.”
Rochdale Hornets v Barrow Raiders (3.00pm)
Rochdale Hornets coach John Stankevitch is facing an injury crisis just one week into the new season.
Chris Hough (foot) is a major doubt for Sunday’s Northern Rail Cup clash with Barrow Raiders. Ryan Powell (ankle) and Adam Bowman (facial injury) are both definitely out, while Dean Gorton (calf) is also unlikely to feature.
However, Warrington Wolves prop Jamie Peasnell is in line for his Rochdale debut after agreeing a dual-registration contract for 2011.
Stankevitch said: “The one thing I’m looking for this week is for us to throw everything we’ve got at Barrow. I’ll be more than happy if we put our bodies on the line for the full 80 minutes.”
Barrow coach Garry Schofield says his team need to develop a “killer instinct” after last week’s 24-20 victory over York.
Schofield said: “For 30 minutes we did well, then let them back into it before half-time. We need to get that killer instinct if we want to do the job, rather than just falling in love with ourselves. We need to make sure we get a performance that’s longer than 60 minutes this week.”
However, Schofield was pleased with his side’s attacking ability. “For the five tries we scored, we kept good shape, ball movement, depth and width.
“The lads have taken on board the way I want to play but once we do get in front, we need to kick on. Everyone we play is going to want to take our scalp.”
Chris Larkin (compassionate leave) will be missing, while Gary Broadbent and Jamie Butler face late fitness tests.
Sheffield Eagles v Whitehaven RLFC (3.00pm)
Sheffield Eagles pair Misi Taulapapa and Quentin Laulu-Togagae are still waiting for UK entry visa, but Sheffield coach Mark Aston is likely to make some changes in his pack for Sunday’s visit of Whitehaven.
Prop Ryan Hepworth is likely to start as Aston attempts to monitor all his squad after opting not to play any pre-season friendlies.
Sheffield won 32-20 at Gateshead last week. Aston said: “We looked a bit rusty at times, but we were strong and big for the first 20 minutes.”
Whitehaven coach David Seeds is demanding a noticeable improvement in on-field discipline from his squad. Whitehaven lost 28-18 against Workington on Tuesday night, but it was the alarming number of penalties they conceded that most concerned Seeds.
He said: “We set off poorly on Tuesday night. If we’d taken our opportunities then we might have been able to get back in it.
“However, we conceded 21 penalties against Workington, so that’s clearly a big issue we need to sort out, because the more we have the ball in hand, the better we’re going to be.”
Seeds is likely to name a similar team after his side suffered no major injuries against Workington.
“Travelling to Sheffield is a tough one, especially on the back of Tuesday night,” he said. “We have to rally quickly and just worry about ourselves.”
Workington Town v Gateshead Thunder (3.00pm)
Workington Town coach Gary Charlton is breathing a sigh of relief after his squad emerged unscathed from Tuesday night’s bruising 28-18 win over Whitehaven.
Charlton said: “Everybody’s pulled through OK, but we’ll make some changes because we want to give most of our squad a run out in these first few weeks.”
However, the Town coach does not expect an easy ride against Gateshead Thunder.
He said: “They’re going to be hard opponents, and I’m told they competed well against Sheffield. They’ll be well-drilled and difficult to beat.”
Thunder coach Richard Pell has a slight doubt over Mike Kelly, who was substituted as a precautionary measure after suffering cramp in the later stages of Gateshead’s clash with Sheffield last week.
Pell said: “We were very encouraged by how we went on against Sheffield. There were plenty of positive signs there. Our collective spirit was good and we kept going until the end, so there are no fitness problems.
“Now we’re looking forward to going to Workington. Hopefully they’ll be sore and bruised from Tuesday’s game against Whitehaven.”
York City Knights v Featherstone Rovers (3.00pm)
Dennis Tuffour and Nathan Freer will return for York City Knights, but James Haynes (neck), Sam Lynch (hamstring) and Rhys Clarke (broken hand) are all still missing.
York lost 24-20 at Barrow on Sunday, but coach Dave Woods is upbeat.
He said: “We did some really good things in patches, but we let them off the hook with some cheap penalties. We also gave the ball over without any pressure on four or five occasions.
“However, there was some bad luck in there too, in that their last try was scored on the seventh tackle and their first try was scored with a pass off the floor. Neither of those should have stood.”
Woods is expecting a huge challenge against Featherstone Rovers. He said: “Featherstone are probably the best team in the competition.
“They’re very consistent and very rarely play a bad game. They grind you down, they’re pretty relentless, and they can score from anywhere on the pitch.”
Featherstone scored 11 tries during their 54-10 win over Doncaster last week. Ross Divorty (knee) remains a long-term injury absentee, but James Davey could make his return following a recent hamstring strain.
Rovers coach Daryl Powell is hoping for more of the same after watching last week’s performance. We did some smart stuff at times in the first-half and we got better in the second period.”