KEIGHLEY Cougars are hosting their annual Pride game this weekend, and co-owner Ryan O'Neill could not be more proud of how the club have blazed a trail in rugby league.

O'Neill, who is gay himself, admits there is a slightly different focus this year, as Cougars look to balance a raucous occasion with an important message.

He said: "Our Pride weekend has become an annual party in the town, and it's a great way of spreading a serious message in a fun and entertaining way.

"Other clubs have started doing Pride games, but we want to do things a little differently, and we're focusing on trans rights this year.

"Other areas of the LGBTQ+ movement are more advanced, and being gay is becoming easier, but the trans community are having a tough time at the moment.

"Our kit for the game against West Wales on Sunday, the shorts are in the trans colours of pink, pale blue, brown and black, as a way of representing that community."

As for other clubs becoming increasingly inclusive, O'Neill said: "I'm super proud that we started this off at Cougars, and I'm happy to see the likes of Bradford and Newcastle follow us in hosting Pride games.

"It's great that the game can help people in different ways, and we have workshops and a group set up to help with mental health for example, particularly for men, for whom the suicide rate is so high.

"Sport's not just about the community bounce when you win a game, it's also about using it as a platform to spread the message about matters like mental health and gay and racial equality.

"Sport can be enjoyed, but you can also go big on these messages and change society for the better."

And Cougars have gone big this year, with players, families, staff and guests involved in a video promoting inclusivity in sport ahead of Sunday's game.

O'Neill said: "The video was actually my husband's idea (fellow Cougars co-owner Kaue Garcia).

"He'd been mulling it over for a while and he's the more extrovert of the pair of us.

"People had a laugh and it shows just how much the players are behind our message.

"It can be a risk at a sports club, because not all of your players might buy into it, but they all wanted to be involved and enjoyed doing the video.

"They're role models for kids, and older people, and I hope they did them proud."

Cougars wear Pride flags on the sleeves of their normal matchday shirts as standard, and O'Neill said: "It's become part of the Cougars identity (Pride) and we hope to help other marginalised groups whenever they need a platform too, because there's still some improvement needed to change attitudes on certain things.

"We see ourselves as a professional club and I think it's significant that we have 50 per cent female representation on our board.

"We're not traditional but we try and bring people along with us."

The feelgood factor at Cougars right now is sky-high, off the field and on it, with the team unbeaten and top of League 1.

O'Neill enthused: "It's been phenomenal, a bit of a dream really.

"Each week we're worried the bubble is going to burst but it's not done that.

"We've had real success with our recruitment under Andrew Henderson and made sensible signings, to go from being a good team to a now exceptional one.

"We didn't expect to thrash and nil Oldham at the weekend (but they did 62-0), and that nil is really pleasing.

"Last season we were winning plenty of games, but we were still conceding a lot of points, whereas now the defensive stability is above and beyond what I'd dreamed of.

"That's been a real turning point, what's happened with our defence."

Cougars are hot favourites for a return to the Championship on this form, and O'Neill admitted: "We've thrown the kitchen sink at getting promotion.

"Dad (Mick) did it in the 90s here so we know what success feels like, but we've not been getting it lately.

"We maybe were a bit impatient in 2019, given that when we came in we had virtually no team and a derelict ground.

"We've had to bide our time, but this season we decided there would be no messing about.

"Hopefully in a couple of months, it will have all come off, but I'm not counting my chickens just yet."