Batley looking to provide repeat Rail Cup triumph

CONFIDENT Batley Bulldogs captain Paul Handforth sees no reason why the Northern Rail Cup champions cannot repeat their heroic feats again this season.

One of the most enduring images of 2010 was that of the ex-Castleford Tigers scrum-half sliding on his knees in front of thousands of delirious Batley fans moments before they completed a shock defeat of Widnes Vikings in last year's final.

His actions were slightly pre-mature but seconds later when the final hooter was sounded the ensuing scenes of jubilation were more than warranted; the West Yorkshire club had not lifted any silverware in fully 86 years.

Having played such a pivotal role in ending that long barren run – it had also been Batley's first final appearance of any sort in 58 years – you would think their celebrated players would be happy in the knowledge they were forever etched into Batley folklore.

They were rightly afforded a civic reception afterwards and that afternoon in Blackpool proved one of the most heart-warming tales of the rugby league year.

However, Handforth insists that is not the case.

They open their Northern Rail Cup account again tomorrow with the visit of Leigh – who they stunned in last year's semi-final – and the experienced playmaker has his eyes on retaining the title.

"We were lucky in some respects last season," said Handforth.

"We progressed through the stages under the radar, no one really paid any attention to us until the semi-finals and even then, everybody was writing us off and saying that it would be Leigh who got through.

"We were confident all along that we had the ability to get to the final though.

"It was one of the targets we set at the start of the season and it's one of the targets we've set again this season, along with making sure we get into the Championship play-offs.

"It's not going to be an easy task, but it's one we're capable of."

Batley have retained the majority of last season's victorious squad, which remained unbeaten throughout, and made some additions to leave Handforth bullish about their prospects.

If they were to achieve the feat it would mark another piece of history as no side has ever retained the Northern Rail Cup.

They have a difficult programme facing three other Championship opponents – Halifax and promoted Hunslet the others – along with Gateshead.

But he said: "We've strengthened the side during the off-season and we've brought in some good players.

"There's more strength in depth than we've had before so if anything, I'd say we're probably a better side now than we were last season.

"The pressure on us is definitely going to be greater this time around.

"We know that. We had to wait a long time for a trophy and now that we're the defending champions, all the other clubs will be going out there extra determined to make sure they beat us.

"We're marked men so to speak, and we know there's going to be lots of pressure on us to perform again.

"We know every game is going to be a real battle.

"We've got a tough group and there are some really good teams in there and we know there won't be an easy game for us.

"But we are confident that we have enough quality to beat any other team in the competition."

Leigh assistant coach Paul Rowley said: "Batley 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 too complacent."

Elsewhere, York City Knights are involved tomorrow as the legendary Garry Schofield marks his first return to the professional game in 13 years.

They head to Barrow where the ex-Great Britain captain has taken over as head coach, his first role since being sacked by Huddersfield Giants in 1998.

York coach David Woods said "They've got a lot of experience, with players who have been there and done it, and they'll all be desperate to try and impress Garry Schofield.

"We know how difficult it will be but we're looking forward to tackling them."

The ever-controversial and opinionated Schofield, meanwhile, 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.

"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."

New Keighley player-coach Jason Demetriou begins his reign in charge when they entertain Rochdale Hornets – one of his former clubs before making his name at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.

Hunslet are at Oldham while Sheffield Eagles travel to Gateshead.

Dewsbury Rams are in action at Toulouse this evening as the French side make their debut in the Northern Rail Cup.