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Magic Weekend 2021: Newcastle Thunder serve up appetiser in Championship clash with York City Knights

On the eve of Super League's return to St James' Park, Newcastle's professional club with ambitions of being in the top flight hosted York City Knights in the Championship. "It's been a journey," director of rugby Denis Betts side of Thunder's first year back in the second tier

Picture by Chris Mangnall/ - 15/03/2020 - Rugby League - Coral Challenge Cup - Newcastle Thunder v Dewsbury Rams - Kingston Park, Newcastle, England -
Newcastle's Director of Rugby Denis Betts

They were all here: Fans representing likes of Wakefield Trinity, Salford Red Devils, St Helens, both Hull clubs, and even one sporting a retro Newtown Jets shirt.

But this was not St James' Park for Magic Weekend, this was a 20-minute ride on the Metro from Newcastle city centre out to Kingston Park on the Friday night preceding Super League's big weekend out in the north-east to watch the city's ambitious Championship team in action.

It was, however, visitors York City Knights - another club on the fringe of rugby league's heartlands with public Super League ambitions of their own - who were celebrating at full-time, triumphing 29-16 over Newcastle Thunder.

Hogan: Newcastle can become RL hotbed
Hogan: Newcastle can become RL hotbed

Newcastle Thunder chairman Mick Hogan says Newcastle can become a rugby league hotbed in the UK, as Magic Weekend returns to the city.

Promoted to the Championship from League One in place of Leigh Centurions following their elevation to Super League in 2021, Thunder had already secured their status in the second tier for next year prior to this match. But director of rugby Denis Betts does not want them to be satisfied with that.

"We have done what we set out to do this year, that is just to stay in the league," former Great Britain international and Wigan Warriors great Betts told Sky Sports.

"That was a tough ask; we were late into the league, recruitment was a little bit late, but we still felt we had enough to do that.

"We have achieved our goal, but we have probably under-achieved - that's the way I like the lads to feel about it because there is more in this group."

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Although more associated in a sporting sense with football, which is followed with a religious-like fervour in the north-east, rugby league teams representing Wallsend, South Shields and the city itself all came and went during the 40 years following the sport's great schism of 1895.

Gateshead Thunder's admittance to Super League in 1999 proved fleeting despite the team finishing sixth that year, although the successor club which re-emerged south of the Tyne before moving to Kingston Park and being rebranded following a takeover by rugby union club Newcastle Falcons in 2015 has proven a stable presence in the professional game.

Allied to that has been the growth in sport at community level in the region, as shown by the U16 teams of Cramlington Rockets and Gateshead Storm facing off in the curtain-raiser to Friday night's match under the watchful eye of Betts.

That growth has not gone unnoticed by those running the sport and, speaking at a media briefing ahead of Magic Weekend's return to Newcastle for the first time since 2018, Super League chairman Ken Davy spoke enthusiastically about rugby league's prospects in the region.

"I think the people of Newcastle should be really proud of the impact they're having in rugby league and in relation to Super League," Davy said. "It's a very exciting future for them and us.

"The very fact that Newcastle Thunder have ambitions to get into Super League is an indication of the impact rugby league is having in the north-east.

"It is proving quite significant, and we're impressed with the progress Newcastle Thunder are making and it would be terrific to see them in Super League at some stage in the not-too-distant future."

On Friday, Thunder never recovered from going behind to a try from ex-Super League forward Chris Clarkson after just four minutes, although their vociferous support - who waved banners and flags and sang throughout - did have some moments to cheer, particular as the hosts threatened a comeback early in the second half.

Picture by Chris Mangnall/ - 15/03/2020 - Rugby League - Coral Challenge Cup - Newcastle Thunder v Dewsbury Rams - Kingston Park, Newcastle, England -
Newcastle's Alex Clegg
Image: Alex Clegg is one of the products of Newcastle's academy now making a mark for the senior team

Among the Newcastle try-scorers was highly regarded winger Alex Clegg, a product of the club's academy and the Northumbria University. Half-back Alex Donaghy, the first player to feature at all levels of Thunder's youth set-up, was among the replacements too.

Plans are now in place to move to a full-time set-up next season and continue the push towards the aim of winning Super League by 2030, and Betts is in no doubt the lessons learnt from this year will stand rugby league in Newcastle in good stead.

"We've got good management, a good chairman and a really good coach in Eamon O'Carroll, who is learning as well," Betts said.

"It's his first time as a head coach, so he's got a lot to learn from this year, and it's a tough competition we've jumped into. We started off the year as a League One side and then a month later we're a Championship side.

"It's been a journey. We've got a couple of games left we need to sort out and then we're into our phase for going full-time, resetting our targets and going after the ambitions of the organisation to get into Super League in the next five years."

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