Challenge Cup: Cornwall prepare to make rugby league history

Cornwall RLFC
Cornwall will find out who they have drawn in round two on Thursday

When Jake Lloyd followed his family down from Leigh to Cornwall, the prospect of playing in the Challenge Cup seemed further away than the 340 miles between his hometown and where he now plays his rugby.

But a couple of years on Lloyd is preparing for the greatest of club rugby league tournaments with Cornwall’s 13-man team.

Cornwall RLFC, known as the Choughs, will make their debut in the second round this year, 12 months after first being formed and playing a season in League One.

“I’d come down with the impression that my rugby league playing days were pretty much over,” says Lloyd, who works as a barber in Truro alongside being the Choughs’ hooker.

“Cornwall RLFC was a bit of a lifeline really – it came out of nowhere at the perfect moment and everything fell into place at the right time and I ended up playing rugby league again.”

Jake Lloyd
Jake Lloyd had his photo taken with the Challenge Cup as a 10-year-old in Leigh, and 14 years on he will be playing in the tournament for Cornwall

Lloyd has experience of the first round of the tournament before, having played twice for National Conference side Leigh Miners Rangers, so 2023 will be special whatever happens as Cornwall, as a League One side, have a bye into the second round.

It wasn’t easy for Cornwall in their first season – they won just one game out of 20 against fellow strugglers West Wales Raiders – but the dream is to build on that in 2023, starting with a Challenge Cup victory.

“We’re not here to build up the numbers, we’re here to really do something this year,” adds Lloyd to BBC Sport.

“We’re working hard at that in pre-season, so the win is exactly what we’re going for, no matter who we come up against.”

‘A knot in the stomach’

Neil Kelly (left) and Mike Abbott
Mike Abbott (right) succeeded former Widnes boss Neil Kelly as Cornwall head coach in October

Cornwall’s debut will not be the only first at the club – it will also be the first time Mike Abbott has taken charge of the side.

A teacher from St Helens, he moved to Bodmin seven years ago and has coached both league and union in his new home.

So when he was approached to help the fledgling side last year he jumped at the chance, and after former Widnes boss Neil Kelly left after a season in charge last October, Abbott stepped in to take over as head coach.

“There’s bucket loads of excitement about being in charge and leading them,” Abbott told BBC Sport.

“Just to be a start of something new that’s started is really exciting, and the Challenge Cup brings all the funny feelings with it.

“There’s a bit of a knot in the stomach, the nerves around it, because you don’t want the lads to get lost in the moment of it being what it is, you want them to enjoy it, but you want them to get a job done as well, so it’s a fine balance.”

So how important is the Challenge Cup to a more successful 2023 than 2022?

“I don’t want it to be the be-all and end-all, because I don’t think your seasons can be over on game one, but momentum-wise I don’t think you can understate it,” says Abbott .

“We’ve got a pretty big northern contingent down here now, of the 22 at training last night 13 of them are from up north.

“So the northern boys appreciate what they’re running into, but for some of the Cornish boys it’s amazing how much they know about it.

“They’ve really bought into what the Challenge Cup is because they watch league – not a lot of union boys will admit to it – but some do admit they like watching it.”

But in Cornwall the 15-man sport is the dominant flavor of rugby.

Cornwall are the reigning county champions while Cornish Pirates play in the second-tier Championship. Cornish rugby union players including Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Matavesi play in the Premiership and internationally.

So the county has rugby talent, it’s just a case of whether they want to play the 13 or 15-man version of the sport.

“There’s probably some slight tribalism with the league and union rivalry, but I speak to a lot of people about it and there seems to be a lot of praise for it and a lot of positivity around it, so that can only be good for the sports in this area,” adds Lloyd.

“I heard a quote that said ‘the best rugby league player in the world might never play the sport because he doesn’t have the access to it’, so just spreading the sport into different parts of the country and the world can only be a good thing.”

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