Jarrod Sammut’s whirlwind weekend, Knights charge on as Panthers fall, relegation decided by finest of margins: A crazy final round of Championship action

Ben Olawumi
Brendan Santi (York), Jarrod Sammut (Barrow) & Jake Maizen (Halifax)

The races for the top six and survival in the Championship reached a dramatic ending - Alamy

Jarrod Sammut played for both Malta and Barrow Raiders this weekend, two games in two days over 2000 miles apart, and that was just the tip of the iceberg in a crazy final weekend of Championship action.

Born in Blacktown, Australia, the 36-year-old’s international exploits are nothing new, first donning the Maltese jersey back in a 2006 test match against Lebanon. On one occasion, he also represented the country in rugby union, playing in a 2008 World Cup qualifying defeat to Croatia.

Saturday afternoon saw the half-back score a hat-trick of tries and kick 13 goals – a 100% record with the boot – in Marsa as Phil Humphrey’s side hammered Bulgaria 78-0 in heat of over 30 degrees. The win was a record home victory for Malta.

Skip forward 24 hours, and former Super League ace Sammut was back in Cumbria pulling on a Barrow shirt for their final game of the season against York Knights. Coming off the interchange bench 27 minutes in at Craven Park, the veteran couldn’t prevent a 31-18 defeat, though results elsewhere on Saturday had already confirmed their safety, as we’ll detail further on in this article.

York Knights charge on into play-offs, Halifax Panthers fall

Barring the top two in the Championship, Featherstone Rovers and Toulouse Olympique – who ended on 50 and 38 competition points respectively -, the gaps between those jostling for a play-off berth were absolutely minimal.

After a dreary mid-season run, York Knights put together a run of nine wins in 10 league games ahead of their final outing in the regular season, the only defeat in that run by a margin of four points to Toulouse.

The latest of those nine wins came on Monday night by one point against Batley Bulldogs, one of their main rivals for a top six spot. Batley went on to beat already relegated Newcastle Thunder on Saturday, but knew results today could see them drop out of the play-offs again, and that’s exactly how it panned out.

Halifax Panthers were in pole position to claim the last spot with a point more to their name than York, and a win at home to a Swinton Lions side at big risk of relegation was all that was needed. Simon Grix’s side threw their chance away though, losing 22-12 at the Shay, and with York’s win at Barrow, the Knights kept their campaign going!

They’ll travel to Bradford Bulls next week in the first round of the play-offs, while Sheffield Eagles will host London Broncos. Club legend Grix meanwhile now departs Halifax, and he will join Hull FC as an assistant coach to Tony Smith next year, as previously reported by Love Rugby League.

Relegation comes down to the finest of margins

Newcastle’s relegation was confirmed earlier this month. They’ve only won five games all year, drawing a further one, so bow out with 11 points to their name. It’s not known what lies ahead for League 1 after London Skolars’ withdrawal, so Thunder will wait with baited breath to find out what the landscape is for them in 2024.

The race to avoid finishing in the other spot in the bottom two was still very much on ahead of this weekend, and remained the case even after Barrow had seen their survival confirmed yesterday courtesy of Whitehaven’s home defeat to Toulouse.

Jonty Gorley’s side dropped into the relegation zone after that defeat on points difference, level on competition points with both Swinton and last year’s League 1 champions Keighley Cougars.

The latter pair started the day on -323, while Haven’s campaign ended on -328. In layman’s terms, that meant that a defeat by a margin six or more points for either Swinton or Keighley this afternoon would see them relegated and Haven survive.

As already mentioned, Swinton pulled an impressive victory at Halifax out the bag, and their own safety was secured. Keighley though lost out 24-16 at promotion-chasing London Broncos.

They cut the deficit to four points in that game on 65 minutes and would have survived if it stayed that way, but a 72nd minute try for the Broncos from Iliess Macani meant that they were beaten by eight points, and relegated with a points difference just three worse off. Sport is a cruel world at times!

Who’s going to be in the Championship in 2024

2023 is the last year – at least for the time being – that promotion and relegation are going to be decided by on-field performance alone with IMG’s new grading criteria coming into force.

Wakefield Trinity – who are expected to appoint veteran Daryl Powell as their new head coach – were the ones to drop from Super League, so will play second tier rugby league for the first time in over 25 years in 2024.

Joining them will be Dewsbury Rams, who won League 1 this term, and Doncaster RLFC who today gained promotion courtesy of an 18-6 win in the play-off final against North Wales Crusaders. It’ll be the Dons’ first Championship season since 2015.

The other six confirmed clubs for next year’s second tier are Batley, Halifax, Widnes Vikings, Swinton, Barrow and Whitehaven.

League Leaders’ Shield winners Featherstone Rovers – on their third permanent coach of the year in James Ford – are the hot favourites for promotion heading into the play-offs. They will have a home tie in the semi-finals against Sheffield, London or York, unable to meet 3rd-placed Bradford until the final now.

Out of those five and Toulouse, who will also play at home in the semis, just one will reach Super League. The other quintet will make up the rest of the 14-team Championship again in 2024.

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