IT IS little over two decades since one of the greatest injustices perpetrated by rugby league’s administrators robbed Keighley Cougars of their place among the game’s elite, but last Saturday they at least got to enjoy a moment back in the spotlight.
As many of the 9,521 crowd were slowly filing into Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road for the opening day of this year’s Kingston Press Championship Summer Bash, the Cougars were doing battle with York City Knights for the first silverware of the season.
The iPro Sport Cup might be the lesser-heralded of the professional game’s prizes, yet that should not diminish how much it meant to either of these sides – in particular Keighley, who 20 years ago could have been founder members of Super League had events transpired differently.
As many will no doubt recall, the club had lodged itself firmly in the consciousness of the rugby league community and beyond thanks to what would eventually become known as ‘Cougarmania’.
Not only did they set the template many others have since followed in terms of community engagement and matchday experience, but they also succeeded in raising crowds from an average of 350 in 1989 to over 4,000 regularly packing out their Lawkholme Lane ground in 1994.
The zenith of this period was in 1995 when Keighley – a club whose previous most-notable on-the-field achievement was finishing as Challenge Cup runners-up in 1937 – stormed to the Second Division title and, seemingly, had secured a place among the elite.
But the restructuring ahead of the switch to summer and the formation of Super League dashed those dreams, despite threats of legal action against The RFL and bizarrely offering to move to Burnley and rebrand as the Pennine Cougars.
Six years after that Second Division title triumph, Keighley were being liquidated and have spent much of their time since then bouncing between what are now known as the Championship and League One.
Cup success has proved elusive for them down the years too, with the aforementioned Challenge Cup final – an 18-5 defeat to Widnes – and two Yorkshire Cup runner-up finishes being the closest the Cougars have come to knock-out glory.
Saturday’s opening match of the Summer Bash gave them the opportunity to change that against York – another team long starved of silverware – and those spectators who were there in time to see it were treated to a thriller.
Keighley were ahead 10-6 at the interval, but the City Knights looked to have secured the trophy five minutes from time when James Morland went over to give them a two-point lead.
But from a short kick-off, the Cougars marched straight up the other end and Charlie Martin wrote himself into the club’s history books by grabbing the game-clinching try two minutes from time, with man of the match Paul Handforth kicking the conversion.
The only downside was Sky Sports had elected not to broadcast the game live. Ah well, at least the Cougars and their 300 travelling supporters could enjoy their moment in the sun.
Who knows, there could still be many more to come…
Summer Bash round-up: The RFL were clearly quite pleased with themselves over the success of this year’s annual gathering of Championship clubs in Blackpool, as evidenced by them trumpeting the “record attendance” at Bloomfield Road over the two days.
Given this is only the second year of the Summer Bash, it seems pretty hollow to be trumpeting anything associated with the event as a record, particularly as the aggregate crowd of 15,912 was only 531 up on 2015.
Nevertheless, those who either did go or were watching on Sky Sports were undeniably treated to an exhilarating spectacle of rugby league.
Not only did the iPro Sport Cup final, but the opening day saw Championship leaders Leigh Centurions edge out Bradford Bulls 24-20, Whitehaven edge bitter Cumbrian rivals Workington Town 28-24 and London Broncos show why they are still one of the teams to beat with a 32-14 triumph over Sheffield Eagles.
The only real blow-out of the weekend was Halifax’s 37-0 trouncing of Featherstone Rovers, but the second day’s other games saw Batley Bulldogs emerge 28-24 victors in the Heavy Woollen Derby clash with Dewbury Rams and Dominic Brambani snatch a 25-24 win for Swinton Lions over Oldham Roughyeds.
Meanwhile, back in Super League: The Armchair Pundit would have bet his Eddie Hemmings hairpiece collection on Leeds Rhinos making the Super 8s – even after their almost comically-dismal start to the season.
Alas, the not-for-much-longer defending champions now seem firmly on course for a place in the Qualifiers following their 52-18 evisceration at the hands of Warrington Wolves last Friday.
The half-time score of 18-12 to hosts Warrington might have suggested another thriller like the opening match of the campaign at Headingley back in February.
The fact Leeds were out-scored 34-6 in the second half tells its own story though and while Warrington must be given credit for the ruthless way they punished the visitors at every opportunity, some of the Rhinos’ defence was cover-your-eyes awful – particularly down the middle.
It was a week for runs coming to an end as well, with early-season darlings Widnes Vikings putting their eight-game losing streak firmly to bed after coming from 16-0 down to beat Huddersfield Giants.
As mentioned before in this column, the Giants’ collapse from Super League dark horses to hapless also-rans has been almost as stark as Leeds’ and with seemingly little explanation for why performances have dropped off a cliff this season.
Logic would suggest the two Yorkshire sides should have too much quality in their squad to be in any serious danger of relegation come the split, but there will be plenty of their supporters looking over their shoulders – along with the Championship promotion hopefuls eyeing a couple of notable scalps to press home their case.
Catalans Dragons continue to go about their business at the other end of the table and a 34-16 win over Hull Kingston Rovers keeps them well in contention, while the black-and-white half of Hull continue to lead the way after seeing off St Helens 32-24.
And it was refreshing to see Salford Red Devils making headlines for their on-the-field performance, running in seven tries to end Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ recent revival with a 38-8 triumph at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Thursday night attendance watch: The crowd of 5,558 at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle to watch Wigan Warriors see off Castleford Tigers 33-26 was 2,214 down on the same fixture last year, which was held on a Friday night.
Despite the offers of free travel for away fans, it seems many supporters are voting with their feet as regards to what they think of Thursday Night Super League.
— Toulouse Olympique (@TOXIII) May 30, 2016
Barlow makes a name for himself: Gloucestershire All Golds have not had much to crow about in League One so far this season, but the recent try-scoring exploits of Chris Barlow have been garnering plenty of attention.
The Sheffield-born outside back, who originally started out playing the 15-man code for Bakewell Mannerians, now has eight tries to his name after a double against Toulouse Olympique in the only match in the division last Saturday.
Despite Barlow’s efforts, the French side ran out 48-16 winners to move up to second in the standings.
Amateur score of the week: Myton Warriors 14 Thornhill Trojans 17, BARLA Xamax National Cup final. Man of the match Danny Ratcliffe landed a late drop goal to see Thornhill clinch the amateur game’s premier knock-out competition for the first time in their history.
Former in 1988, Thornhill play in National Conference League Division Two, with one of their finest hours prior to this cup win coming in 2000 when they stunned Sheffield Eagles in the Challenge Cup.
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