Leigh Centurions are favourites to win the Championship League Leaders’ Shield and get promoted back to Super League at the first time of asking.
A lot of Leigh fans will feel hard done to, being the only team relegated from the Betfred Super League last season, despite not finishing bottom.
Widnes Vikings were the team who ended up with the wooden spoon after the regular campaign but it was Leigh who were replaced by Hull Kingston Rovers in the top-flight, with Neil Jukes’ Centurions losing to Catalans Dragons in the Million Pound Game.
However, the club haven’t sulked about it and got straight back into the grind in pre-season.
As the club were relegated, every player’s contract was deemed null and void so there have been a lot of incomings and outgoings at the Leigh Sports Village in the off-season.
Notable players who left the club are Mitch Brown, Martyn Ridyard, Gareth Hock, Cory Paterson, Glenn Stewart, Eloi Pelissier, Danny Tickle and Atelea Vea.
However, Jukes’ squad for 2018 looks better on paper than the one that competed in Super League in 2017.
The Centurions pulled off a major coup in bringing Peter Mata’utia in from NRL side Newcastle Knights as well as Craig Hall from Championship rivals Toronto Wolfpack.
They’ve signed Rhys Evans from Warrington Wolves while Drew Hutchison, Kyle Lovett, Paterika Vaivai and Bodene Thompson have arrived from overseas.
And what stands out more than anything is the amount of youth involved in the squad this year, with eight players being aged 23 or under.
Veteran forward Harrison Hansen has been made captain this year and he said that there is a good blend of youth and experience at the club.
He said: “I’m the only one over 30 this year whereas last year there were about six players over 32 so we have got a good mix of youngsters and a few oldies.
“We’ve had a complete new change at the club. Derek (Beaumont), Jukesy (Neil Jukes) and Keiron (Cunningham) have recruited some quality players and we have added a few important staff as well so we’ve done well this pre-season. All the boys have gelled in.
“It’s a brand-new start. We are in the Championship but we all have a common aim which is to get back into Super League.
“We have learned some lessons from last year and everything is building to have a good, positive year.”
Head Coach: Neil Jukes
Assistant Coach: Paul Anderson & Kieron Purtill
Captain: Harrison Hansen
Key Man: Peter Mata’utia
One to Watch: Ben Reynolds
Ins: Craig Hall (Toronto Wolfpack), Peter Mata’utia (Newcastle Knights), Rhys Evans (Warrington Wolves), Drew Hutchison (St George Illawarra Dragons), Paterika Vaivai (Gold Coast Titans), Kevin Larroyer (Castleford Tigers), Bodene Thompson (NZ Warriors), Jordan Thompson (Hull FC), Larne Patrick (Castleford Tigers), Kyle Lovett (Wests Tigers), Nathan Mason (Huddersfield Giants – loan), Jack Owens (St Helens), Greg Richards (St Helens), Nick Gregson (Wigan Warriors), Ricky Bailey (St Helens – loan), Jonah Cunningham (St Helens – loan), Jack Blagbrough (Sheffield Eagles), Ilias Bergal (Swinton Lions), Jordan Dezaria (Catalans Dragons).
Outs: Mitch Brown (Warrington Wolves), Adam Higson (Toronto Wolfpack), Martyn Ridyard (Featherstone Rovers), Josh Drinkwater (Released), Gareth Hock (Featherstone Rovers), Micky Higham (Retired), Cory Paterson (Toronto Wolfpack), Glenn Stewart (Released), Eloi Pelissier (FC Lezignan), Danny Tickle (Released), Antoni Maria (Catalans Dragons), Atelea Vea (Released), Gregg McNally (Bradford Bulls), Ryan Hampshire (Wakefield Trinity), James Green (Castleford Tigers), Sam Hopkins (Toronto Wolfpack), Lee Smith (Bradford Bulls), Lewis Foster (Released), Dave Thompson (Whitehaven).
Squad: 1 Craig Hall, 2 Matty Dawson, 3 Ben Crooks, 4 Peter Mata’utia, 5 Rhys Evans, 6 Ben Reynolds, 7 Drew Hutchison, 8 Paterika Vaivai, 9 Daniel Mortimer, 10 Jamie Acton, 11 Kevin Larroyer, 12 Bodene Thompson, 13 Harrison Hansen, 14 Liam Hood, 15 Jordan Thompson, 16 Larne Patrick, 17 Kyle Lovett, 18 Nathan Mason, 19 Jack Owens, 20 Greg Richards, 21 Nick Gregson, 22 Ricky Bailey, 23 Jonah Cunningham, 24 Jack Blagbrough, 25 Ilias Bergal, 26 Jordan Dezaria.