Rugby league was a winter sport, played by part-time athletes, in 1992 when Wakefield Trinity beat Sheffield Eagles in the last Yorkshire Cup final, bringing to an end a competition which had been an integral feature of the county’s calendar since 1905.
The fact only 7,918 turned up at Elland Road to see it, 1,000 down on the previous year when Castleford and Bradford Northern contested the decider, is an indication of why time was called. A crowd of 1,504 ventured to Dewsbury Rams’ Tetley’s Stadium on Saturday to see a new competition rise from the ashes and while that is not a startling figure, it was an encouraging beginning.
The 2019 Yorkshire Cup is being played over three weekends in pre-season with eight teams, from Championship, League One and National Conference, taking part. Round one included double-headers at Dewsbury and Bradford Bulls’ Odsal Stadium and the other teams involved are Featherstone Rovers, York City Knights, Hunslet, Batley Bulldogs, Halifax and Hunslet Club Parkside.
Low key it may be, but there was genuine enthusiasm in the chilly air at Dewsbury and a feeling this brainchild of the clubs rather than the Rugby Football League could be the start of something much bigger. With the Championship and League One seasons finishing in September and not resuming until February, clubs are faced with a long, barren spell without matchday income. The new Yorkshire Cup, with silverware up for grabs and gate money shared, plugs that gap with meaningful matches, rather than than the usual flurry of poorly-attended ‘friendlies’.
The attendance on Saturday was around 300 up on the gate for last year’s Championship meeting between Dewsbury and Featherstone.
Those who watched only the first game, between York and Parkside, were included in that, but even so it was more than could be expected for a normal pre-season run-out.
The action on the field was also more competitive. York, the 2018 League One champions, fielded a strong line-up, but did not have things all their own way in a 34-4 win over Parkside.
“You need warm up games to make sure your players are match fit and to work on combinations for the actual league campaign,” York coach James Ford pointed out.
“What they have done is give pre-season trial games a bit more meaning. There’s an element of competition in there.”
They may have been invited to make up the numbers, but the only community club involved did the amateur game proud, conceding just three tries in each half and grabbing the final touchdown of the game.
“We are grateful to be invited into it,” said Parkside coach Paul McShane, the Castleford Tigers hooker. “It is great for us to play against some of the top teams and there is a meaning to it as well.”
Both Rams and Rovers have had a change of coach since their last meeting in the 2018 Championship Shield and the tie was a chance for them to have a close look at future opponents. A couple of penalties for foul play in the opening moments indicated it was going to be a full-blooded affair and so it proved, with Rams battling to a 20-14 win despite having hooker Robbie Ward sin-binned in the second half.
There were teething problems including some confusion over what laws the games were playing under, or what happens next weekend, but all four clubs contributed to a surprisingly entertaining afternoon and there were no major hitches.
Paul March, in charge of Rovers until new coach Ryan Carr arrives from Australia, described the revival as a “great idea”.
He said: “The RFL need to sanction it as a proper Cup and play 17 players. We stripped 19 and only used 17 because we had that in our heads, that it was a sanctioned game. But we’ll see, hopefully it will continue and it will give us another game next week and the week after so hopefully we can fix more stuff up.”
Double-headers are much more suited to summer rugby than the January cold of pre-season and Rams’ groundsman must have been thankful the rain and frost held off before the match.
Clearly, for the tournament to grow it will have to expand its horizons into South and possibly East Yorkshire and a sponsor would give it more prestige, but Lee Greenwood, the Dewsbury coach, was upbeat about its future.
He stressed his main priority is preparing for the league campaign, but predicted: “I’d be surprised if it doesn’t take off now.
“The clubs have come up with it as a better way of getting people behind pre-season friendlies.
“It is a good idea and I am sure the north west will be looking over and thinking we want a bit of that as well, then you’ll probably see the Super League clubs trying to jump on it.
“It can definitely expand.”