Rugby League: Oldham pray for a long run

Dave Hadfield suggests a cup campaign could be vital for the game's newest team
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The Independent Online
TODAY'S match in round two and a half of the Silk Cut Challenge Cup is not quite life and death for Oldham - the battle for the very existence of rugby league in the town was fought and won at the end of last year - but the tie against the amateurs of Heworth is a struggle with its own significance.

Uncertainty over whether there would be a team in Oldham at all following the demise of the Oldham Bears left the new club being omitted from the original plans for this year's competition. The York-based Heworth were one of eight amateur teams who came to the rescue by offering to play an extra qualifying match in order to get them into the draw.

"We are very grateful to them," the Oldham chairman, Chris Hamilton, said. "They obviously have pound signs in front of their eyes, but they will be thinking they can beat us."

The evidence of a thrashing in a friendly last week at Hunslet is that an Oldham outfit being rebuilt from the wreckage of the old club could indeed be vulnerable against the well- organised and highly motivated amateur opposition.

What Hamilton, a local accountant who at 34 is the rugby league's youngest chairman, must hope is that they can instead recapture the inspiration that saw them beat Rochdale Hornets on New Year's Day - an emotional first outing for the newly formed side.

"That was the proudest moment of my life," he said. "The reception they got from the crowd was just incredible. I always thought that Hunslet would be a much tougher proposition and it brought home to all of us, including some of the players, how much there is to be done."

Rebuilding a club from scratch is a formidable task and Hamilton admits that he was only vaguely aware of how much he had taken on.

Recruitment plans are geared to having a competitive side in place for the start of the Second Division season on Good Friday. On a piecemeal basis, though, Oldham are putting together a side who should at least take them as far as a third-round tie at Widnes in two weeks' time.

A mixture of young players who got few opportunities with the Bears and bargain signings from other clubs is giving them a base from which to work and the club's first acquisition, John Hough from Warrington, was a symbolic one. Hough, a hooker with Super League experience, comes from Oldham and is typical of the type of player the new club want to bring home. Others of whom Hamilton has high hopes include the former Bears winger Joe McNicholas and Grahame Shaw, a highly promising second rower recruited from Bradford.

They also have a coach with his own little niche in the history of the Challenge Cup in Paddy Kirwan. In 1987, he scored the try for Oldham that knocked Wigan out of the cup - the last team to do so for nine years.

Against that, Heworth, below mid-table in the top division of the National Conference, have a coach with a less happy recent memory of the competition. Stuart Horton was in charge of the York team knocked out by the amateurs of West Hull two years ago - the last professional side to whom that happened. If he evens up his account today, it will seem a long time until Good Friday for Oldham.