Gateshead Thunder-Whitehaven: Preview

Joe WilliamsCorrespondent IMarch 6, 2009

Followers of National League clubs always welcome the Challenge Cup as a break from the somewhat drudgerous group stages of the Northern Rail Cup.

This Sunday sees Gateshead Thunder host Whitehaven in a third round tie between two sides who experienced dramatic turnarounds last season.

After struggling for the first half of the campaign, Whitehaven came within eighty minutes of reaching the National League One Grand Final following a remarkable recovery under the reins Ged Stokes. With Salford and Celtic departed to Super League pastures, fans of the Cumbria club have high hopes of going one better and reaching the final this season.

Gateshead Thunder’s revival was a season-long affair, with a dismal 2007 forgotten in a remarkable 2008 that saw them storm to the National League Two title. Although the loss of Dave Woods as coach in dubious circumstances this winter was a blow, morale is still high at the club as they move forward with an ambitious development plan.

Both sides have had mixed starts to the season in the Northern Rail Cup. Whitehaven have recorded a convincing win against Batley and scrapped admirably in an epic against the mighty Leigh, but were inexplicably trounced by lower league York City Knights.

Gateshead too lost heavily to a lower-league side (Keighley) and less surprisingly also to Widnes. However, Thunder must be encouraged by the ease with which they dispatched Sheffield, their first higher-tier opponents.

Although it is likely the Cumbrians will field a more experienced starting XIII, both sides contain much youthful promise. The key man for Whitehaven is their baby-face scrum half Greg McNally while Thunder will look to new signing Andrew Henderson at hooker for inspiration.

It’s anyone’s game: while Whitehaven probably boast superior quality, with a home crowd behind them Gateshead have every chance if they maintain a solid defensive line and turn their chances into points.

With the added magic of the Challenge Cup and both sides having a penchant for attacking rugby this should prove an exhilarating tie.