KEIGHLEY Cougars head coach Rhys Lovegrove is relishing the prospect of a mouthwatering clash against League One rivals Newcastle Thunder in the Challenge Cup Third Round this weekend.

Typically, the Australian is delighted with the tough home draw and says it will act as a "measuring stick" ahead of Keighley's daunting start to the league season, which will see them go up against most of their promotion rivals.

He said: "It's been a fairly tough start. We've had two Championship teams in friendlies, now we have Newcastle in the Challenge Cup and then we've probably got, according to the bookies, the top six teams in the first six weeks.

"But by having Hunslet, Workington, Barrow, Rochdale, Doncaster and Newcastle, as well as this Challenge Cup game, hopefully we'll start as we mean to go on."

Asked if he'd prefer to play Thunder in the cup over a non-league side, Lovegrove said: "Definitely, I'm really happy we get to play Newcastle.

"They're a quality side and they're our competition in League One. It's a good opportunity to use the game as a measuring stick.

"We were good in the friendlies but it's difficult to get a decent gauge of where you're at until you've kicked a ball in anger."

Steven Hayes could be in line to start for Keighley against Newcastle, having signed permanently for the club last week.

Discussing the new man, Lovegrove said: "We've had a a few injuries in the backs and he's been really, really good for us in pre-season.

"The feedback that I got when he played for our reserves last year was that, not only were his performances top drawer, but he was a good bloke too, so that was part of why I wanted to make sure we got him in."

Kyle Kesik has only just come in too, with the experienced hooker signing from Doncaster at the end of 2019.

He will be Cougars' captain for 2020 and Lovegrove said: "I'm an observer who lets the players forge their own path, so I just let them settle and interact with each other over pre-season.

"There are a few obvious voices within the group, like Benn Hardcastle and Jake Webster, but I've noticed that the boys have been drawn to Kyle so I think it (the captaincy) is deserved."

One player who won't be in action at Cougar Park on Sunday is Jordan Aitchison, who has just had successful surgery on the heart condition he was diagnosed with last month.

Lovegrove was full of praise for the utility back and said he was delighted by his recovery.

Aitchison admits he cannot wait to pull on a Cougars shirt again and asked whether that epitomised the positivity around the club at the moment, Lovegrove said: "It's an indication of the mentality, not just around the club, but the Keighley community.

"It's exciting and Cougars is almost becoming a hub that people want to be a part of."