KEIGHLEY Cougars finally have a game of rugby league again this weekend, as they visit Hunslet in the second round of the Challenge Cup.

And head coach Rhys Lovegrove admits he is glad they are playing a League 1 rival on Sunday.

The Australian said: “The nightmare would have been getting an amateur side away.

“That would have meant putting our players at risk for no reason, as they’d likely have been playing on a poor surface against strong, aggressive opposition.

“But Hunslet will be a good, tough test, and a chance to put an early marker down.

“We’ve only had two weeks of footy so far, given how deep we went in the play-offs last season, so selection for Hunslet will be medical and fitness-based first.

“We’ll also be rewarding players who are representing the culture we’re trying to create at Keighley, so things like attendance at training and what they’re eating.”

Lovegrove said there are a couple of niggles, but no serious injuries, within the Cougars’ camp.

Brenden Santi might be struggling to make Sunday too, having been allowed extra time off in the off-season due to finally being allowed to travel abroad to see his family, after two years of coronavirus restrictions.

Italy captain Santi was one of a number of experienced players to arrive ahead of the 2021 season, but recruitment took a very different route for 2022.

Lovegrove said: “It’s a slow process trying to implement a culture and a system of play at a club, but after losing all of 2020, and getting affected by injuries at the start of 2021, our development was pleasing at the back end of last year.

“But at the same time, we didn’t want to bring in too many new players, as you’d risk needing to do a complete rebuild.

“We were very selective about recruitment in the off-season, and the biggest difference was we were able to bring in a lot of players at the younger end.

“Ahead of 2021, we already had Jake Webster, but then we brought in QLT (Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e), Scott Murrell and Brenden Santi, who were almost cultural pieces for us.

“They offer us leadership on and off the field, whereas new boys like Anthony Dyne, Nathan Roebuck, Harvey Spence and Lewis Young are in their early to mid-20s and are just enthusiastic to play matches.”

New head of rugby Andrew Henderson has been vital in that recruitment drive, and Lovegrove said: “Both he and (new head of performance) Chris Black have been massive for us.

“The last couple of years, I’d been doing a lot myself, but things like contracts and negotiations are very time consuming, so it’s nice to have dedicated staff to help with that so I can expand on things like training.

“With Hendo, I know him well and we have similar coaching philosophies, so if I felt we needed a player, he’d suggest I look at certain others too, and we’d discuss it.

“From an athletic point of view, Chris can up the tempo physically within the squad, so it will be interesting to see how that shows against Hunslet and beyond.”