KEIGHLEY Cougars head coach Rhys Lovegrove insists he does not expect the shock departure of Luke Gale to Wakefield Trinity to lead to any sort of exodus from his squad.

And while he concedes it is a blow to lose his star half-back after just nine Betfred Championship games, he believes the club’s “next man up” mentality will stand them in good stead for the rest of the season.

Gale’s return to Super League with immediate effect was announced on Monday night, with Cougars co-owner Ryan O’Neill saying: “We understand that, with the current unknown status surrounding club’s IMG gradings, Luke wanted a guaranteed opportunity to get back into Super League.”

Other big-name signings like Ben Crooks and Mark Ioane turned down a season in the top-flight to join ambitious Keighley, but the club now have to do a lot of work off the field to give themselves a chance of making Super League in the near future.

But Lovegrove insisted: “I don’t think the situation with IMG will be on the minds of the other players, and I’d certainly hope we can keep the squad we have now, minus Luke.

“You don’t want too much turbulence in mid-season and we want to keep that continuity within the playing group.”

On Gale’s departure specifically, Lovegrove said: “There’s no doubt it’s a blow, as to lose a starting half-back at any time of the year isn’t great.

“But Luke had his reasons for leaving, which I understand, and I support him with that.

We’ve got players like Billy Gaylor and Lloyd Roby who can step up alongside Dane Chisholm in there though.

“We don’t look to injuries and the players that have gone as excuses, it’s a case of having ‘the next man up’ and that’s always been our mentality at the club.

“We’ve got quality young players who can replace Luke and him leaving gives those boys a big opportunity.”

Life after Gale starts this Sunday with a Betfred Championship clash at surprise package Whitehaven.

The Cumbrians, like Keighley, have won four of their opening nine league games, despite revealing the club nearly went bust a few months ago.

The relegation favourites have impressed Lovegrove, who said: “Whitehaven have quietly gone about their business.

“A lot was spoken about them publicly at the start of the year and when they lost their first three games, there were people claiming they were right to write them off.

“But they’ve gone about things well and had some good wins, like York away.

“We’re on the same points as each other, two points off fifth and four off third, so it’s a big fixture this weekend.”

Cougars have not played in the league for three weeks, since a 34-6 home defeat to Toulouse, with their Challenge Cup fifth round loss to Batley a fortnight ago followed by the international break.

Reflecting on the state of play after a third of the season, Lovegrove said: “It’s been a learning curve.

“We’ve had a couple of close losses where we maybe deserved to win, but in the Championship you need things to go your way.

“We’ve won four from nine but our five defeats have come against top sides (Featherstone, Widnes, Batley, Halifax and Toulouse).

“We’re not there yet, in terms of where we want to be, but I believe I know what the group needs to do to compete and it’ll only help us getting some lads back from injury and playing regularly.”