Northern Rail Cup starts tonight
Friday 4 February
Featherstone Rovers v Doncaster RLFC (7.30pm)
Featherstone Rovers coach Daryl Powell is searching for more success after leading his side to last year’s Co-operative Championship minor premiership.
Rovers went on to lose the Grand Final against Halifax RLFC in heartbreaking fashion but Powell is now fully focussed on this year’s Northern Rail Cup.
He said: “All the signs are positive, but it’s really important we don’t take anything for granted.”
Powell has suffered a major blow with the news that Ross Divorty (knee) is facing three months out.
However, there is still plenty of strength in Rovers’ squad. Powell said: “If we play well, then I’m confident that at the end of 80 minutes we’ll be where we need to be on the scoreboard.”
Doncaster scrum-half Scott Spavin could return after missing his side’s friendly against a Doncaster Select team due to a shoulder problem.
Dons coach Tony Miller said: “I’m really pleased with how the boys have trained, and we’ve had the majority of the squad in place for the last couple of months.
“Featherstone away is probably the hardest start we could have got, but I want us to be competitive in every game.”
Swinton Lions v Halifax RLFC (8pm)
Swinton Lions coach Steve McCormack has had to reshuffle his squad after the shock departures of Andy Ainscough and Carl Sneyd.
Ainscough has joined the Marines, while Sneyd is taking 12 months’ break from Rugby League.
Dana Wilson (ankle) is also unavailable this week, although he should be fit within a fortnight.
McCormack said: “I’m loving every minute at Swinton. It’s a good bunch of people on and off the field, and the players have been working exceptionally hard.”
He added: “We couldn’t have had a more difficult start, but that just makes the challenge more exciting.
“Halifax are well coached and the best team outside of Super League, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Halifax RLFC star Ben Black is expected to recover from a shoulder injury in time to face Swinton.
Player-coach Dave Larder said: “We’ve trained pretty hard for the last 12 weeks. It’s getting to the point where everyone just wants to get back playing again.”
Saturday 5 February
Toulouse Olympique v Dewsbury Rams (7pm)
Toulouse Olympique coach Gilles Dumas will be hoping to make an immediate impression when his side play their first ever Northern Rail Cup fixture on Sunday.
But Dewsbury Rams coach Warren Jowitt is hoping for better fortune on this trip to southern France.
Jowitt said: “Last year we had a 26-hour bus journey to get to Toulouse. Trying to play off the back of that was a tough ask.
“We were out on our feet and Toulouse nicked it in the end, but this year we’re flying on Friday and we should be there with plenty of time to spare.”
Hooker Luke Blake (medial ligaments) is missing after suffering an injury in the pre-match warm-up of Dewsbury’s friendly with Batley.
But Jowitt is confident his squad can cope. He said: “We’ve brought some new players into the club and they’ve done a great job.
“Their attitude has been outstanding, as has their commitment. I can’t knock them.
“On top of that, we’ve got a few good youngsters coming through – guys like Josh Tonks and Elliott Cosgrove – so I’m confident about the new season.”
Anthony England will be travelling with the Dewsbury squad after returning to full training, although Jowitt has not yet finalised his team.
Sunday 6 February
Barrow Raiders v York City Knights (2pm)
Barrow Raiders coach Garry Schofield is promising to bring a fresh style of rugby to the Northern Rail Cup.
He said: “I want my players to have more enjoyment, smartness and freedom. I think the game’s become a little robotic and predictable, but the lads have bought into my philosophy very, very quickly.”
He added: “A coach can only do so much. Once they cross the white line, it’s up to the players. We’re going to play what we see and we’re going to play attractive Rugby League.”
Schofield also confirmed he has a fully fit squad to pick from ahead of Sunday’s clash with York.
“We’re all fit and ready to go. I’m very happy with the squad and it’s now up to the players to play to the consistent level that I’m looking for.”
York City Knights coach Dave Woods is set to be without four key men for Sunday’s trip to Cumbria.
Rhys Clarke faces another fortnight on the sidelines as he recovers from a broken hand.
Dennis Tuffour (flu), Nathan Freer (hamstring) and Sam Lynch (hamstring) are also expected to miss Sunday’s Northern Rail opener.
But Woods remains in upbeat mood. He said: “Our pre-season has gone well.
“We’ve come up with a couple of injuries this week that we don’t really need at this stage of the year, but we can’t really complain.”
He added: “This is Barrow’s first home game and they’ll be very tough opposition.
“They’ve got a lot of experience, with players who have been there and done it, and they’ll all be desperate to impress Garry Schofield. We know how difficult it will be.”
Batley Bulldogs v Leigh Centurions (2pm)
Batley Bulldogs coach Karl Harrison will assess Paul Mennell’s fitness (dead leg) before naming his team to face Leigh Centurions.
Chris Buttery and Adam Robinson (knee) are definitely sidelined.
Bulldogs are looking to become the first team to retain the Northern Rail Cup, but they face three Co-operative Championship clubs in the group stages of this year’s competition.
Centurions will travel to Mount Pleasant with a fully fit squad. Leigh assistant coach Paul Rowley said: “Our pre-season has gone very, very well.
“Our facilities mean we don’t miss any sessions due to bad weather, and it’s important we start the season well.”
He added: “Our squad has really taken shape over the off-season. We’ve got a pack of forwards that’s more or less Super League quality, with bags of experience, and there’s some exciting youth in the backs.
“We think we’ve got a really good quality squad with lots of competition for places.”
On Batley, Rowley said: “They were a bit of a bogey team for us last year - they upset us a few times.
“It’s a tough place to start the season, but we’ve done very well in our friendlies, we’ve built nicely for this and we’re quietly confident without being complacent.”
Gateshead Thunder v Sheffield Eagles (3pm)
New Gateshead Thunder coach Richard Pell says his squad are relishing the chance to face Sheffield Eagles in Sunday’s Northern Rail Cup clash.
Pell said: “We’re looking at it as a positive challenge. Sheffield are one of the top sides in the Co-operative Championship, so it’s a fantastic challenge for us.”
Pell will give a late fitness test to Mike Kelly (groin strain) but has an otherwise fully fit squad to pick from.
He said: “We’ve had a good three months in pre-season and things have been going well.
“We’ll be more competitive than last year, and if that transpires into results, so be it.”
Eagles coach Mark Aston says his side are wary of Gateshead’s threats – but are determined to improve on last year’s campaign.
Aston said: “We know it will be a tough game - all first team games are.
“There’ll be one or two lads getting an opportunity, but we’ve got to respect Gateshead.”
He added: “We want to get on a roll and that’s not easy when you haven’t played any friendlies, but that’s a decision I made because it’s a long season.
“We want to improve on what we’ve done over the last couple of years. Last season we finished sixth and got to within one step of the Co-operative Championship Grand Final. We want to improve on that.”
Misi Taulapapa (ankle) remains sidelined, meaning James Cottle is set to start at full-back. New signing Quentin Laulu-Togagae has not yet arrived in the UK.
Keighley Cougars v Rochdale Hornets (3pm)
Former Wakefield hero Jason Demetriou is ready to write a new chapter in his career when he takes charge of his first competitive game as Keighley Cougars’ head coach.
The respected Australian has taken over from Barry Eaton, who left to become Iestyn Harris’ assistant at Crusaders.
Demetriou said: “I’ve been here for about a month and I’m loving it.
“The players are starting to buy into what I’m trying to do, and we’re starting to see some results of that.
“There’ll be a tough mentality at the clubs and players need to learn that there are certain expectations of them.”
He added: “The team spirit at this place is phenomenal. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Prop Ryan Benjafield (shoulder) will be out for up to another month, while Jonny Simpson and Anthony Henderson (both knee) are also facing a number of weeks on the sidelines.
However, Demetriou insisted: “We’ve got about 28 fit players and that’s a great way to start the season.”
Rochdale Hornets coach John Stankevitch has his own problems, with the premature retirements of Pete Fairhurst and Dave Kennedy being compounded by news that captain Phil Wood will miss the entire season after rupturing his cruciate ligaments in a pre-season friendly.
Stankevitch said: “Other than the injuries, I’m really pleased with how our preparations have gone.
“I’ve got a fair idea of where we’re at and I think we’re in a really good position. Our first 17 is stronger than last year and there’ll probably be four or five players who are really disappointed on Sunday.”
London Skolars v Widnes Vikings (3pm)
Joe Mbu believes London’s increasing strength in depth could help the Skolars enjoy a better year in 2011.
Mbu, who has taken over from James Massara as London Skolars’ head coach, said: “The level of competition within the squad has been pretty high. Hopefully that’s done a lot of good to motivate us to challenge each other.”
He added: “I feel that we’re where we want to be at this stage of the year.
“We’ve got a few niggles here and there, but nothing that’s going to keep people out long term. The majority of the players are fit and well and itching to get out there.”
New Widnes Vikings coach Denis Betts does not expect an easy ride at the New River Stadium.
He said: “London are a physical team and they’ve got aspirations to move themselves forward.
“It’s a long trip and it will be a tough day for us. We’re not expecting it to be easy, but we’re focussed on what we want to achieve.”
Steve Pickersgill is back in contention while Simon Finnigan has also returned to full training.
Betts added: “We’ve had some challenges with the weather – we’ve missed at least three weeks on the field because of it – but we’ve been working hard to make that up, and we’re getting there now.”
Oldham Roughyeds v Hunslet Hawks (3pm)
Johnny Walker (lower back/hamstring) and Dave Ellison (arm) face late fitness tests before Oldham coach Tony Benson finalises his team for Sunday’s Northern Rail Cup clash with Hunslet Hawks.
But Benson is confident his side can do well, regardless of whether Walker and Ellison are healthy.
He said: “Our last game a couple of weeks ago showed that we’ve got a bit of attack, and the defensive work we’ve done during pre-season has also been worthwhile.”
On Hunslet, Benson added: “They gave us a right tonking at our place last year.
They’re the masters of playing a small pitch. They’re very powerful and pretty skilful, but I think we’re better now and it’ll be an interesting game.”
Player-coach Paul March is Hunslet’s only injury worry.
March said: “I tweaked my back in our friendly against Keighley. If I’m not 100 per cent fit then I won’t play on Sunday. I need to make sure I’m fit for the league campaign.”
He added: “Everyone at the club realises it’s a different challenge for us this year, but we’ve all knuckled down and we’ve got some good work out of pre-season.
“This game has come at exactly the right time for us.”
On Oldham, March said: “They’ve retained a lot of their players from last year. We embarrassed them a bit at Whitebank last season and they’ll want to put a few things right.
“Tony (Benson) will have them fired up and we need to be on our guard. We’ve got to do a professional job; if we do that, the result should take care of itself.”
Whitehaven RLFC v Workington Town (3pm)
New Whitehaven RLFC coach David Seeds can pick from full strength when his side host Cumbrian rivals Workington Town in Sunday’s Northern Rail Cup fixture.
Australian prop Luke Isakka could make his debut for new-look Whitehaven, who are hoping to put last year’s disappointments behind them.
Seeds said: “Our preparations have gone very well.
“We’ve mixed it up from last year and done a few different things. We’ve had a bit of variety, and even with the bad weather we’ve managed to get some fitness done.”
He added: “There’s still a bit more settling down to do. We’ve lost a bit of experience from last year and we’ve got some new players in. On top of that, we’ve only had two pre-season friendlies and there’s a bit of room for improvement in our combinations.
“But we’ve identified areas we need to improve on, and it’s just a case of implementing that.”
Town will travel without Darren King (work commitments), Marc Jackson (knee) and Jack Pedley (shoulder).
Joint coach Gary Charlton said: “I think we look stronger than last year. We’ve got 20-odd players that can play at this level.”
He added: “Whitehaven are always a tough side to beat at home.
“It’s a derby match and they’ll be fired up wanting to do well, especially with us winning the last one down there.”