Rugby League: Amateurs to give much-needed tonic

WHAT COULD be deemed to be the start of the Millennium season arrives this weekend with the first round of the Silk Cut Challenge Cup.

To a game in need of a tonic, the array of amateur sides starting out on the road to Murrayfield - where the 2000 final will be staged - comes as a refreshing sight. Shrinkage might have set in at professional level, but there is still an expansionist mood detectable in the ranks beneath.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the presence of all three branches of the armed services in the draw. The RAF play Normanton Knights and the Army face a Dewsbury Celtic side spearheaded by a Tuigamala, Andrew, younger brother of Va'aiga. Best of all, there is the Royal Navy's appearance at Hull Dockers. The burgeoning student game is represented by John Moores University, at home to New Earswick All Blacks.

The host city on 29 April gets an early taste of the competition with the local side, the Edinburgh Eagles, at home to Woolston, while tomorrow the Dublin Blues face Farnworth ROB. But a tie with even more resonance sees two areas deserted by the professional game face each other when the Durham Tigers meet the Cardiff Cougars. At amateur level, at least, the code is not yet an endangered species in those outposts.

Equally timely is Sheffield Hillsborough Hawks' trip to York Acorn. The Hawks' coach is Mark Aston, the former Sheffield Eagles captain, who is trying to set up a new professional club in the city following the Eagles' merger with Huddersfield.

The St Helens forward, Vila Matautia, became the sixth player from the Super League Grand Final winners to undergo close-season surgery. Matautia, who played for America in the recent Lincoln World Cup qualifying tournament, has undergone a minor knee operation but is expected to be fit for the Boxing Day clash against Wigan. Other Saints players recovering from surgery are Kevin Iro, Paul Atcheson, Paul Newlove, Anthony Sullivan and Keiron Cunningham.

Oldham's coach, Mike Ford, today completed his 12th signing of the close season when the full-back Mark Sibson agreed a two-year contract. The 23-year-old student international scored 14 tries and 49 goals for Bramley last term before ending the year on loan to Huddersfield.