Although the 2003 season ended less than a week ago, 2004 could be said to start this weekend with the first round proper of the Powergen Challenge Cup.
Two players who tasted glory at the Cup final's traditional home of Wembley face each other in one of today's ties. The Sharlston coach, Martyn Wood, was in the Sheffield Eagles side that created one of the Cup's biggest upsets by beating Wigan in 1998. His side goes to Widnes St Maries, coached by the former Great Britain scrum-half Bobbie Goulding, who collected four winners' medals with Widnes and Wigan. Goulding is being linked with a possible return to the professional game, as the player-coach of Rochdale Hornets, having this month turned down an approach to play for Swinton.
Among today's other highlights will be the participation of the armed forces, with the Army at home to East Hull, the Royal Navy going to Normanton and the RAF hosting Underbank.
Halton Simms Cross, who got as far as a money-spinning tie with Wigan last year, try to make progress in this campaign at the Arriva Trains Conference champions, Siddal. Tomorrow, the Aberavon Fighting Irish - the Welsh representatives, despite their name - are at home to Ince Rose Bridge, while Edinburgh Eagles go to York to play Heworth.
A Russian side will enter the draw for the next round, with the 20 National League sides and four from France coming in at the third-round stage. It will be the end of February before the big guns of Super League enter the draw, with the final in Cardiff a couple of weeks later than usual, on 15 May.
Widnes have given the last place in their squad for their training camp in Australia in January to the 18-year-old scrum-half, Martin Ainscough, who shone this year in their Academy side. "Widnes are going to depend more and more on the young talent we can bring through and it is important that we are seen to reward those who have put in the biggest effort," said the Widnes coach, Neil Kelly, who has added the former Warrington player, Mark Knight, to his coaching staff.
Toa Kohe-Love, who joined the Cup-holders, Bradford, from Hull at the end of the season, says he will be fit for the start of the Super League season after having surgery on his shoulder.
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