Cup memories still strong for former Rhino Clarkson ahead of new campaign

Whilst the Betfred Super League is still a week away, competitive Rugby League does return this weekend with the start of the Betfred Challenge Cup and the return of Championship teams after a year on hold. One of those players looking to kick start the new season is former Rhino Chris Clarkson as he leads York City Knights out against Sheffield Eagles at the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster.

A decade ago, Clarkson was part of the Leeds team in the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley against Wigan where he was joined in the team by Ben Jones-Bishop, who he reunites with at the Knights.

Clarkson has not played for over a year since last year’s Challenge Cup win over Rochdale on 15th March 2020 and he can not wait to get back on the field.

He told us, “It is our first game after a year and it is great that it is in such a historic competition as the Challenge Cup to do it in, the lads are chomping it at the bit. We started back for pre-season in October and we have got a lot of training under our belt. We have prepared ourselves over the last four months to be at our best and we are looking forward to seeing how we go. 

“The York club is in a good place, especially with our Super league bid. The team is very dedicated and a determined bunch. The new stadium is great, I have had a tour around it and the lads got the chance to play there last week against Hull. When we get fans in it’ll be even better. It is a special stadium and our challenge is to do it justice now,” added the 30-year-old.

York had the chance to test themselves against the Rhinos recently in an opposed training session and Clarkson said it was a worthwhile exercise. He revealed, “It was good to go against the current Leeds squad, we got plenty out of it. It was good to see where we are at for our preparations for the new season.” 

Ahead Friday’s clash with Sheffield, Clarkson says the Knights have had to focus on their own game with no form to really go on for either side. He added, “We’ve not been able to do much prep on the Eagles, it’s over a year for both teams since we played. We have concentrated on ourselves, Sheffield have got some history in the Cup so it sets things up nicely. There are two rounds to go before the Super league teams come in so there is a great prize there for the Championship teams. We know that if we can get a win against Sheffield, we will play the winner of London v Keighley next week in the next round.”

Looking back a decade to the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley for Leeds, Clarkson says he can still recall his feelings and emotions that day as he got to live his boyhood dream of playing for his home town club at Wembley. Ben Jones-Bishop was a try scorer that day and now the two players will line up alongside each other in the Challenge Cup once again. He recalled, “We were both very fortunate to experience walking out at Wembley; to be there in front of 80,000 fans. I always remember the heat from the flames as we walked out, that has always stuck with me. It is great to have Bish with us at York. He is an exciting player, he has plenty of pace and you can tell he has been coached well throughout his career. It seems like a long time ago since we played at Wembley but I’ll remember it forever and it’s always there in my mind.”

Another Rhino connection at the Knights is current Challenge Cup holder Adam Cuthbertson. The Australian was part of the Rhinos team that lifted the famous trophy at Wembley last October. He will miss the game with Sheffield as he recovers from the injury he suffered at Wembley but Clarkson says he is settling in well to life at York. He added, “Cuthbo is settling in well. He is a very experienced player, it is great for us to be bringing that to the club. He has had some experience with coaching as well and he is bringing that to our lads as well, I am looking forward to him pulling a shirt on for the Knights.” 

Rugby League fans will be able to watch the first match of the 2021 season on Friday night – the Betfred Challenge Cup First Round tie between 1998 Wembley winners Sheffield Eagles and Super League hopefuls York City Knights – live, exclusive and free at www.thesportsman.com, YouTube and Facebook.

The Sportsman is a sports news and features website and will show a number of games from the Betfred Challenge Cup as well as wider Rugby League coverage.

For the Eagles and the Knights, this will be a long-awaited return to competitive action, more than a year since the 2020 Betfred Championship was curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

John Kear, the Bradford Bulls coach who inspired Sheffield’s famous Challenge Cup upset against Wigan 23 years ago, will join Matt Newsum in commentary for a tie that will be played in the superb facilities of Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium.

The match will be played behind closed doors, and is the first of eight First Round ties that are spread over the weekend of March 19-21.