WHEN the Northern Union took the step of instituting the Challenge Cup in its second season, it was made open to all members of the nascent organisation – both professional and amateur.
Among the 40 clubs who took part in the first round of the new tournament on the third weekend in March 1897 were amateur side Rochdale St Clements, who went down 11-0 to Leeds.
This would prove their only year playing in the Challenge Cup as their chairman was staunchly opposed to professionalism, with the club folding in the same year and later emerging as a football team which continues to play to this day.
Tomorrow, nearly 119 years later and with the grand old competition now under the sponsorship of bookmaker Ladbrokes, one of the town’s more established amateur sides gets the opportunity to get to test themselves against their professional neighbours.
You can almost hear the former chairman of St Clements turning in his grave at the prospect. But for Rochdale Mayfield, the third round tie at home to Rochdale Hornets – who, for the record, lost to Swinton in the last 16 of the first Challenge Cup – was exactly what they wanted.
“The mood at the club has been upbeat since the draw was made and this is a great opportunity for us as a club to show the town how far amateur rugby has come, both on and off the pitch,” Mayfield chairman Simon Howe told Rochdale Online.
“I love rugby league, for me there is no greater spectacle than a good hard game and in any sport there is nothing better than a local derby so the game has everything.
“Throw in the David and Goliath factor and you have all the ingredients for one of the best sporting events the town has seen.”
Founded in 1958 and taking their name from the Mayfield Hotel in the town, the club – according to their official history, no less – “soon established themselves as a ‘no holds barred’ set up.”
Mayfield have played Challenge Cup ties against professional teams such as Salford and Hunslet in the past, although their run in last year’s competition came to a premature end after they were kicked out for fielding an ineligible player in their first-round win over the British Police.
The league campaign proved more successful though, with the team finishing third in the National Conference League (NCL) Premier Division and then losing to eventual champions Leigh Miners Rangers in the play-off semi-finals.
Now one of the top sides in the highest level of amateur rugby league in the country get the chance to pit their wits against the nearby Hornets, who just missed out on the play-offs in Kingston Press League One last season and won the Challenge Cup back in 1922.
Mayfield declined the opportunity to switch the tie to Hornets’ Spotland ground and although admission prices have been increased to £10 from the usual £2.50 after negotiations between the two clubs, hopes are high of a bumper crowd at the Mayfield Sports Centre.
There is more than a sporting link between the two clubs as well, with Hornets club doctor Ian Sampson having played for Mayfield as a centre and second row.
“I think professional rugby and the amateur game in the town share a destiny,” said Dr Sampson.
“I just hope I have nothing to do on game day! I’m looking forward to what will be a great day for rugby league in the town.”
Sunday sees another amateurs-versus-professionals derby across the other side of the Pennines as newly-promoted NCL Premier Division outfit York Acorn take on York City Knights at Bootham Crescent.
Acorn, who reached this stage thanks to wins over Sharlston Rovers and Distington, were formed from a pub in York back in 1973 and are set to have plenty of backing from the city’s other amateur teams, with York Lokomotive and Heworth old boys having bought tickets for the clash.
Indeed, demand has been so high that Acorn had to go back to the City Knights and ask for extra tickets to sell from their initial allocation of 300.
“The phone hasn’t stopped ringing and we’ve been telling people they can pay on the gate as well, so I’m sure quite a few more will go down on the day,” York Acorn secretary Alan Havercroft told the York Press.
“When we spoke to the Knights last week we had looked at maybe 1,500 people turning up but I now think we’ll beat that, to be honest.
“The occasion is going to be fantastic. I think it could be the biggest Challenge Cup game in the city since Clarence Street (York beat Castleford there en route to the semi-finals in 1984) was knocked down, especially in terms of people talking about it.”
That Castleford quarter-final tie saw 8,529 pack into Clarence Street to witness York Wasps – the previous incarnation of the City Knights – edge to a 14-12 victory, with all of their points coming from Graham Steadman.
The city’s professional team have been to Wembley once too, although that was back in 1931 and saw them soundly beaten by Halifax.
Sunday’s game also marks the first match for the City Knights at Bootham Crescent, which they will be sharing with York City Football Club this year, and while the expected 2,000 crowd may not be quite up there with those halcyon days of that Castleford tie, it will be a huge boost for rugby league in York.
Both Rochdale Mayfield and York Acorn will fancy their chances of causing an upset, along with getting into the hat for round four and being just one more win away from possibly facing a Super League team.
Upsets by amateur teams against professional opposition are rare, but can still happen. Most importantly though, this is a chance for clubs from what The RFL calls the ‘Community Game’ to show what rugby league at their level is truly all about.