Banned Keighley Cougars coach Paul March set for 'front-row seat' in Challenge Cup tie at Widnes

Fringe benefit: Gav Duffy, left, is set for action in the Challenge Cup tonight as part of Paul March's plans to rotate his squad

Fringe benefit: Gav Duffy, left, is set for action in the Challenge Cup tonight as part of Paul March's plans to rotate his squad

First published in Sport by

Keighley player-coach Paul March will sit back and watch his side’s Tetley’s Challenge Cup quarter-final against Widnes tonight in comfort after perching himself on a car wash to see their recent home games.

The former Wakefield and Huddersfield half-back, who has guided the Championship part-timers to the last-eight of rugby league’s prestigious knockout competition, is halfway through a two-month stadium ban after being found guilty of verbally abusing a referee.

Under the terms of the suspension, March is forced to leave the ground half-an-hour before kick-off and not return until 30 minutes after the final whistle.

“It’s not so bad when we’re at home because I’ve got a viewing point outside the ground,” March said. “At the back of the posts there’s a petrol station and I can see 90 per cent of the pitch from a fence in the car wash.

“The frustrating thing is that I can see things going on and I can’t do anything about it because I can’t communicate with the bench. But on a positive, the lads know I’m watching and they know they’re getting scrutinised on every play.

“Obviously with tonight game being on Sky, I’ll get a front-row seat won’t I? I haven’t decided where it will be yet.

“I’ll travel with the team like I always do and do my match talk before I leave the ground. I could jump in one of the Sky vans or I could get into a pub but I’ll definitely see the game and the lads know I’ll be watching.”

In March’s absence, conditioning coaches Adam Mitchell and Paul Royston take charge of substitutions, with experienced players Paul Handforth, Danny Jones and James Feather running the show on the pitch, and five consecutive wins up to last Sunday’s loss to Halifax indicate the arrangement is working a treat.

“The lads are getting prepared every week like they normally would,” added March, who is waiting for permission from the RFL to play for Championship One club Hemel on Sunday in an effort to maintain his match fitness ahead of his scheduled return for the Cougars on July 16.

“All they are missing at the minute is me playing on the field and a bit of direction from the stands on game day but we’ve got a lot of experienced players who take control on game day. As far as I’m concerned, my job’s done by eight o’clock on a Friday when we’ve done the last session.”

March, who claimed in his appeal a case of mistaken identity, is not tempted to break his stadium ban by wearing one of the face masks produced in his likeness by fans as a demonstration of support for their coach.

“I’ve always said I’m innocent but I’ve taken it on the chin,” he said. “The lads and the club are using it as fuel for the fire for what we want to achieve this year.

“The club carried out an investigation straight away and they are 100 per cent behind me as are the fans. It’s a nice gesture, although it’s a bit weird seeing the fans in a Paul March mask.”

Keighley, who lost 18-5 to Widnes in their only Challenge Cup final appearance in 1937, are the 500-1 outsiders to lift the trophy for the first time at Wembley on August 23 and their chances of pulling off a major upset will not be helped by March’s decision to field a weakened team.

The coach argues that, with five clubs relegated from the Championship to make way for the new league structure in 2015, his priority is Tuesday’s game at Whitehaven, which has had to be rearranged because of the Cougar’s unexpected Cup success.

“The league campaign is more important for the club and for these players regarding their future employment because, if we don’t finish in the top nine, it’s a long road back to the Championship,” March said.

“There’s going to be at least ten changes from Sunday’s team and another ten changes back for the game at Whitehaven.

“I wouldn’t say I’m disrespecting the Challenge Cup. We’ve got a squad of 34 players here and everybody needs game time. I think there will be one player playing on Thursday night who has not played one first-team game.

“We’ve only got a four-day turnaround and I can’t afford any injuries at this stage. I think the RFL need to look at player welfare. They’re arranged a full set of fixtures for Sunday because they don’t think Championship clubs will get to the quarter-finals.

“We’ve got four games in 14 days but Super League clubs are blowing up if they play two games in four days and we’re part-time players.”

Widnes stand-off Kevin Brown, a former team-mate of March at Huddersfield who will captain the Vikings in the absence of the injured Jon Clarke, insists his side will not underestimate their opponents.

“We don’t want to take Keighley too lightly because Super League teams can get burnt,” said Brown. “Keighley have some quality players but if we can play the way we know we can, then we can win comfortably.

“We will respect them and I will tell the boys to treat them as if we were playing Leeds or Wigan in Super League but I will also tell them to enjoy the occasion.”

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