It feels like forever ago, that last matchday. Some clubs will even have wondered at various times whether they would ever get to the point where they could play another game. Rugby league really has been through the mill over the past 12 months.
But on Friday night, live on The Sportsman, the Betfred Challenge Cup season gets underway as Sheffield Eagles host York City Knights at the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster. And while every campaign is much anticipated, every opening fixture an event, this one feels like a massive boost for the entire sport.
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit everyone and everything to some degree, and it was always going to be a struggle for a sport which thrives so much on its communities to come through such a long period with no financial returns and no physical way of reaching out to the people who keep the clubs going on a week-to-week, day-to-day basis during what we now refer to as ‘normal times’.
So it comes as a huge relief that every Betfred Championship and League 1 club is due to line up for competitive rugby league once more in the very near future, and Sheffield coach Mark Aston is keen to start the season off with the kind of flowing, entertaining rugby which will remind so many people what it is they have missed most during the 12-month hiatus since lower league action last took place.
“We’re going to try to entertain, and that’s something that we’ve always tried to do,” Aston told Betfred ahead of Friday’s First Round clash. “There’s a big emphasis for us on trying to play quick, to engage and isolate defenders, that’s the game for me.
“Pre-season has been different, it has been longer, there have been spells out and in, contact has come in late, but the boys have been great. The nucleus of the squad has been kept from last year, so there’s plenty of experience, and out of the 10 new players the oldest is probably 26 so we’re building for the future and I’m excited to see them in a competitive game.”
He knows it won’t be easy on Friday though, with a hugely-ambitious York side standing in their way.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge because York have invested quite heavily, I think they’ve got something like 900 Super League appearances in them, with quality all across the team. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us, but one which we’re looking forward to, we’re excited and we can’t wait for it to be here.”
York have not just moved to a new stadium this season, with the LNER Community Stadium now open for business, but they have also packed their squad with experience and quality. The Knights were one of a number of clubs who applied to replace Toronto Wolfpack in Super League for 2021, and while Leigh Centurions were chosen ahead of them they are expected to push hard to win a place in the top-flight on merit over the next year or two.
“The club’s Super League bid just highlighted what we can bring to the competition and what we do bring to rugby league,” Knights coach James Ford told Betfred. “But it’s not just about the stadium, just around the corner is our training facility with £8 million worth of gear there for us to make sure our preparation is right up there with the best sides in the country. So things are looking good for us off the field and the boys are shaping up really well in pre-season.”
Those ‘boys’ now include the likes of Adam Cuthbertson, Ben Jones-Bishop and Ryan Atkins to complement a group packed with Super League quality. Like Sheffield, they will have the capacity to entertain too.
It all makes for a magnificent opening act to a 2021 season which promises to bring all sorts of drama, and with the majority of it hopefully taking place in front of the returning crowds which make rugby league so special.
For now, though, The Sportsman is the place to be as rugby league returns after far too long. The delay has only made us love the sport even more.
Coverage of Sheffield Eagles v York City Knights begins LIVE on The Sportsman from 7:30pm GMT