Challenge Cup: Featherstone Lions and Thatto Heath enjoy spotlight

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The Challenge Cup: Proper grassroots Rugby League is back this weekend
Ladbrokes Challenge Cup
Venue: Mill Pond Stadium, Featherstone Date: Saturday, 10 February Kick-off: 14:00 GMT Coverage: Live streaming on the BBC Sport website and connected TVs
Watch the game live on BBC Sport here

In the shadow of two famous Challenge Cup winning teams, Featherstone Lions and Thatto Heath Crusaders will enjoy their own spotlight on Saturday when their second-round tie is broadcast on BBC Sport.

For the Lions, read Rovers. One of the smallest villages to have produced a cup-winning team - as the former mining hub did on three separate occasions - it also boasts an amateur side with equally proud traditions and a production line of talent that has gone on to play professionally.

In Thatto Heath's case, it is St Helens who dominate the landscape. However, the Crusaders are the reigning National Conference League champions and have also developed plenty of talent over the years.

BBC Sport takes a look at both clubs, with the help of respective head coaches Paul Dooley and Richard Owen.

Will the Lions roar?

Having dumped out East Yorkshire side Skirlaugh in the first round, Featherstone have been dealt a tough card in the shape of Thatto Heath.

However, there is anticipation and excitement about the challenge, rather than trepidation.

"It's a massive challenge against the best amateur team in the country and a chance to make a statement," Dooley told BBC Sport.

"This town has two clubs, Rovers and the Lions and because of that we get massive backing. 'Fev' people are proud.

"These players have a chance, if they win then they're one round away from the professional teams coming in. Some have mates who play at a higher level.

"The Whatsapp group is buzzing and hasn't stopped with messages between the lads."

On a crusade

Paddy Flynn scores for Widnes against Wakefield
Thatto Heath winger Paddy Flynn played in Super League and in a Challenge Cup semi-final against Castleford as a Widnes player earlier in his career

Although Thatto Heath had their 2017 Grand Final success streamed on the internet to a worldwide audience, this is their first taste of the BBC Sport broadcast treatment.

Their route to the second round was a tricky away tie at Saddleworth, and they find themselves on the road again on Saturday.

"It's been great," coach Owen said. "It's worked really well and it's proactive for the grassroots game which is a fantastic spectacle.

"It generates excitement for the players, whether they've played professionally or not, and gives them a new zest.

"It can have a knock-on effect for sponsors too as they get to see their brand on TV and it gives them a buzz."

While some fans, players and coaches will dreaming of the fairytale road to Wembley, there is a pragmatic realism at Thatto Heath.

Winning the NCL Grand Final last season was an achievement to be proud of, and Owen is putting all the resources behind another successful campaign.

"We know we're not going to win the Challenge Cup," Owen continued.

"We enter the cup to prepare for the league season but if we're successful, then our 'Wembley' becomes a draw with a Championship club.

"The offset is if we get that far in the competition it starts to affect our league form. So there will be changes of personnel."

Swapping shifts and calling in favours

As with all amateur clubs, the mix of professions and trades within the two squads is a diverse one. Bricklayers, roofers, students and a tree surgeon are all among them.

Some players have found it harder than others to free themselves up for the game, but they have managed it.

"One of the lads is a prison officer and they work three weekends on, one off so he's had to do a bit of swapping and changing," Lions coach Dooley said.

Owen added: "My assistant is a fireman, sometimes it can be difficult for him having to miss things but he should be fine for the game.

"A lot of our guys work with kids with learning difficulties, there's an accountant, blokes in the building trade, while Sean Kenny and a few of the other lads work at Pilkington Glass."

Breathing new life into players

Rob Burrow
Rob Burrow - a multiple Grand Final winner at Leeds - is one of Featherstone Lions' most renowned allumni

While many players from both sides have gone on to play domestically and even internationally - Rob Burrow, Zak Hardaker and James Graham to name three - as many have come back into the amateur game after spells in full-time rugby league.

Thatto Heath have Bobbie Goulding junior - son of former Test half-back Bobbie senior - while winger Paddy Flynn and back-rower Kenny have top-level experience.

"Sean, for example, I know had offers to play higher up at Championship level but it's not always about money," Owen, who is also England Community Lions boss, continued.

"Sometimes it's about enjoyment and being in the right environment, not what deal is on the table.

"His dad has been down supporting us as well. So many people drop out, go missing but these lads turn up, pay their subs and enjoy it."

Meanwhile, Lions centre Gaz Gale has been with Rovers having impressed on trial but is likely to be released for the cup tie - another example of the close bond between the two teams.

"There's a pathway, for talent who can play for Lions, then maybe go on to play for Rovers and then beyond," Dooley continued.

"Look at Zak, he took that route and then once he got to Fev the opportunities opened up for him to go to Leeds."

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