The 2013 Championship will host 14 clubs this season – the 10 who competed in the division in 2012 plus four teams promoted from Championship One last season. Controversial partnerships between Super League clubs and nearby Championship outfits litter the division with nine second-tier sides choosing to formally link up with their fully professional neighbours in what should be a competitive and congested league.
Of the five clubs retaining their independent status, three would be expected to challenge for the Championship title again and that’s where we begin our round-up
Featherstone Rovers have been a picture of consistency in the Championship over the last few years and, once again, will surely be battling for honours at the top of the table come the end of the season. Rovers have finished as league leaders the past three seasons but have only won the division once as a result of this, triumphing in 2011, and tasted defeat in both the Championship Grand Final and Northern Rail Cup Final last year.
Coach, Daryl Powell, will try to put those disappointments behind them as they chase a fourth consecutive Grand Final appearance and will be bolstered by the signings of former London Broncos speed merchant, Lamont Bryan, ex- Doncaster winger, Tom Hodson, and Super League talents, Matt James, Andy Ellis and Kyle Briggs. In Liam Finn Featherstone have a wonderful role model to captain the side, having broken every record going with his perfect goal-kicking run for part of last season and he will make Stuart Dickens’s departure to the Wakefield coaching staff all the easier to bear.
With entrepreneur, Feisal Nahaboo, becoming a major shareholder at the club and ploughing a six-figure sum into funding their bid to be accepted into Super League next year, there is renewed optimism in this part of West Yorkshire in what are surely good times to be supporting Rovers.
Featherstone’s last-gasp heartache at the end of last season was Sheffield Eagles’ joy as Championship Coach of the Year, Mark Aston led the South Yorkshire club to the title from fourth in the table.
There have been few notable signings ahead of the 2013 season for the champions though half back, Pat Walker, arrives with good pedigree from Dewsbury and adds to a successful line-up containing quality players such as Quentin Laulu-Togagae, Misi Taulapapa, and captain and former Hemel Stag, Jack Howieson. The champions will be there to be shot at but should make the top four once more as they build on their success.
Sheffield’s opponents in Round 1 of the Championship are Halifax who finished one place above the eventual winners of the league last year. Halifax’s 2012 season ended when Sheffield romped to victory at The Shay in the Play-Offs and Thursday’s televised opener will give Karl Harrison’s side a chance to earn revenge for that Minor Semi-Final defeat.
The high point last season for Halifax undoubtedly came in July when they beat Featherstone to win the Northern Rail Cup and Harrison has already indicated that he wants to retain that trophy in 2013. Powell and Harrison exchanged some heated words throughout the course of last season and the Halifax-Featherstone rivalry should be one to keep your eye on during this year’s rugby league calendar.
Like Featherstone, however, and Sheffield, Halifax opted not to link up with a Super League side and the signing of Scott Murrell from Hull KR looks like being a shrewd bit of business as the West Yorkshire club confidently go about their business as one of the bigger Championship propositions.
One player Halifax will surely miss, though, is Sean Penkywicz, who joined Leigh Centurions. Leigh suffered Semi-Final exits to Sheffield and Featherstone in the Championship Play-Offs and Northern Rail Cup respectively and the acquisition of Penkywicz is a great statement of intent from Centurions boss, Paul Rowley, as they look to make strides on the pitch to go alongside those being made off it. In Leigh Sports Village, the Centurions have one of the best stadiums in the Championship and, like Featherstone, Leigh have made their intentions known that they will be applying for a Super League licence come 2014.
Success on the pitch would further their cause and they have linked up with Wigan Warriors to boost their chances of picking up trophies this season. Gregg McNally is one of the most exciting prospects in the division and it would be no surprise were Leigh to perform better than they did in 2012. Their opening game versus Featherstone should be a cracker.
Picking up the rear of a five-team Championship title-contending pack are Batley Bulldogs. Possessing none of the Super League ambitions of their rivals, Batley owe their impressive on-field results to the experience and organisation of John Kear. Previously of Hull FC and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, Kear has turned his hand to improving the skills of youngsters at the club and managed to produce an impressive team.
Huddersfield Giants have teamed up with Batley for 2013 and fans will be glad to see Alex Walmsley back on the sloped LoveRugbyLeague.com Stadium pitch, having been loaned back to them on a dual registration deal by current parent club, St Helens. The 6’ 5” prop was a revelation last season and it is hoped more talents can be unearthed as Batley push to stay near the summit and potentially get their hands on a trophy at the end of the season.
The Rest of the Class of 2012
Keighley Cougars joined the aforementioned clubs to make up last season’s Play-Offs having finished sixth but face a tougher challenge this year after Jason Demetriou left as coach at the end of last season. Paul March has stepped in as player-coach and faces a tough task to finish in the same position as consolidation may be more realistic for the Cougars.
Joe Chandler, Sean Hesketh and James Haley arrive from Halifax to join a squad which won’t be benefiting from a Super League partnership. Ultimately, this could cast Keighley adrift and a Play-Off position will probably be the height of their ambition.
He may be 35 but Papua New Guinean, Makali Aizue, put in some robust performances last season and stands out from the pre-season acquisitions Dewsbury Rams have made. Dale Morton arrives from Wakefield with some decent Super League experience and Glenn Morrison’s knowledge of the Wildcats as Under-20s coach should prove beneficial.
The Rams are placing their hope on a fairly young team and Morrison’s first crack of the whip in charge could see a team including a few unknown quantities springing a few surprises in the division. Dewsbury have linked up with the Bradford Bulls who are now in a position to aid the Championship club.
Swinton Lions have teamed up with Warrington Wolves to put a disappointing 2012 season behind them. Boss, Steve McCormack, has wasted no time in using the link to the Wolves to improve his squad and added nine of Tony Smith’s men to the Lions ranks. The infrastructure at Warrington should gift Swinton a good deal of quality.
The new young recruits will be helped on the field by recent testimonial man, Ian Watson, who shows no signs of letting up as the 36-year-old assistant player-coach of the Lions. The link-up with Warrington looks one of the most influential in the division and a vastly changed squad from last year’s should revitalise the team.
York City Knights have captured no less than seven players from Hull FC as part of the two clubs’ link-up this season. Stand out signings from this list include winger, Tom Lineham, Ben Crooks and Chris Green. York finished bottom of the pile last time out and, without similar reprieves this season, have moved to not be in a position to be thinking about relegation this term. Coach, Gary Thornton, can also call upon the services of former London Broncos second-row, Jason Golden, as they bid to escape a relegation dogfight and look towards the higher rungs of the league.
Completing the trio of bottom clubs from 2012 making full use of the Super League link-up system are Hunslet Hawks. The south Leeds club have taken four Rhinos graduates on dual registration deals with Jimmy Keinhorst and Liam Hood, who played on loan at Dewsbury last season, tipped to make big impressions at the Hawks. German international, Keinhorst, played in the Challenge Cup Final last year and the centre is certainly an exciting prospect for the Headingley giant whilst Hood made his debut at Castleford just under a year ago to the tune of much excitement from those in the know at Rhinos. Waine Price comes to the club with lots of experience and that may be needed in what could be a testing season for the Hawks despite these encouraging signings.
Doncaster completed a South Yorkshire double in 2012 with their Championship One title confirmed in the same stadium as the Championship’s victorious Sheffield Eagles. The Dons impressed in every department last season, led by the instrumental Paul Cooke and Tony Miller must be feeling optimistic about the coming season with their lynchpin still at the Keepmoat.
Lee Waterman performed terrifically last season too and their first foray into a link with Wakefield sees Bobbie Goulding Junior arrive on dual-registration. Buoyed by their exploits last year, there’s no reason why Doncaster can’t ruffle a few feathers in the second tier and achieve a Play-Off finish should their key man remain fit through the season.
Losing their link with Warrington, Barrow Raiders will be playing to survive in the higher division. Swinton’s deal with the Wolves has left Barrow on their own. This leaves a greater onus on head coach, Darren Holt, as he fine tunes the squad for their return to the Championship. The signing of Kurt Haggerty from Widnes Vikings is positive as are those of Dean McGilvray and Danny Jones but you sense that the Raiders will be in a relegation battle this year.
Whitehaven will be hoping St Helens are generous with their loan deals as part of the Saints-Haven-Rochdale partnership that could just as well benefit from the top as it could from the best that the Hornets have to offer. Like their fellow Cumbrian clubs, little beyond survival will be realistically wished for and an almost completely new-look squad will probably take some time to gel.
Dave Woods has collected players from Super League, Championship One, Papua New Guinea, Australia and even French rugby union in his quest to get Whitehaven up to the levels required of them. The project at the Recreation Ground may need a little patience but with 26 games to get it right, Woods will be hoping to achieve something similar to what Wakefield did in Super League last season. The alternative could be disastrous.
Workington Town complete Cumbria’s representation in Championship One. Coaches, Martin Oglanby and Gary Charlton, have made only a few changes to the playing personnel with perhaps more to follow if Widnes Vikings allow some of their young talent to join up at Derwent Park as part of the link-up between the two clubs. As it stands, a lot falls upon the shoulders of Jamie Thackray and Mark Calderwood to set an example to the rest of the team.
Workington ended up being disappointed with how their season finished last year and will be doing everything in their power to put it right in 2013. Survival is on the agenda as all three Cumbrian rivals could be battling it out to see who relegates who come the end of the season.
Of course, it would be great to see a few surprises during the course of the season and there are likely to be a great deal of twists and turns during the season. The burning question remains: how effective will the link-ups with Super League sides be?
It certainly adds to the intrigue of a tightly-contained geographical league. With the trap door to Championship One reopened it’s unlikely that the Championship will be so localised again. Make the most of the derbies before the future of a more national semi-professional rugby league system adds to the game’s evolution.
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Widnes skipper Kevin Brown is pleased that there has not been too much change at his club during the close season.