Challenge Cup: Red Star Belgrade ready for Millom debut in oldest rugby league knock-out competition

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Why are Red Star Belgrade competing in the Challenge Cup?
Coral Challenge Cup: Millom v Red Star Belgrade
Venue: Coronation Field, Millom Date: Sunday, 27 January Kick-off: 13:30 BST
Coverage: Streamed live on the BBC Sport website, connected TVs and BBC Sport app.

Nearly three decades ago their footballers were conquering Europe. Now Red Star Belgrade are aiming to make their mark in rugby league's most famous knock-out trophy.

The Serbian sporting club will play in the Challenge Cup for the first time on Sunday.

And they could hardly face a bigger contrast in culture. They travel to Millom, the Cumbrian fourth-tier club that lays claim to being the oldest amateur side in the world.

Sunday's match, deliciously packed with tasty ingredients from the code's old world and new, will be streamed live on the BBC Sport website.

For most British sports fans, Red Star's name entered the annals of history when they won the European Cup - now the Champions League - beating Marseille on penalties in Bari's Stadio San Nicola in 1991.

But Red Star is one of the world's biggest sporting clubs, which has been involved in 27 different sports since it formed in 1945.

How rugby league re-established in Serbia

League in Serbia is one of the sport's best kept secrets. The game was first played there in 1956, before being effectively banned in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1960s under the influence of rugby union.

However, the 13-a-side code re-emerged in 2002, with as many as 28 clubs playing in Serbia since. Many of them have come and gone down the years, but the Serbian Super League will feature 12 teams in the coming season.

Three disillusioned rugby union players, including current club president Zeljko Delic, persuaded Red Star to adopt league in their diverse sporting portfolio in 2006.

Since then Red Star RL have gone from strength-to-strength, being crowned Serbian champions in each of the last three years. They are also the current Balkan Super League champions - a competition made up of 14 clubs from eight different countries across the region - Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.

"Our ambition is to have Red Star Belgrade one day compete in the [English] Super League, or a future European League," says Mark Pullen, an assistant coach who's been involved with the club since its early days.

"However, as it's important for us that local players form the bulk of our first-team squad, the level of our ambitions are linked to the level of development of our local base."

That local development is proving successful so far. The 22-man squad named for Sunday's game includes 19 Serb players. Six of those are in the Serbia squad.

The three non-locals include Australian Darcy Etrich, who was once in the Melbourne Storm's junior system, plus two players from the United States in Brandon Anderson and Jamil Robinson, who both started their rugby league careers with Brooklyn Kings in New York.

Red Star Belgrade won the 1991 European Cup
Red Star Belgrade's famous football team won the 1991 European Cup, beating Chris Waddle's Marseille in Bari

Millom's deep-lying league roots

By contrast, the team they face on Sunday have roots in the sport that date back to before the game was even born.

The isolated town of Millom, on the southern tip of the Lake District, first had a rugby club back in 1873. And they joined the breakaway that led to the birth of rugby league in 1895. They lay claim to being the oldest amateur club in the world, but did have a short spell of professionalism in the very early days.

It's their 31st appearance in the Challenge Cup. But it was in the now defunct John Player Trophy in which they had their most glorious moment. They lost narrowly 14-8 to the professionals of Wakefield Trinity back in the 1985-86 season on their home ground at Coronation Field.

Like Red Star, they also draw their players mainly from the local community with a thriving youth set up.

For both clubs, this first round tie is a rare chance to showcase the passion and dedication of both players and administrators, but for Red Star Belgrade it's also a chance to see where the club can go next.

"This Challenge Cup campaign is partly about raising the profile of the club to gain support for our grassroots development work," Pullen added. "But also partly about gauging where our players are at compared to the heartlands of the sport.

"Over the next few seasons we plan to play invitational, friendly and promotional matches against top British Amateur Rugby League Association clubs, UK League One clubs, French second and third tier clubs, and anyone else willing to take us on."

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