The launch of the new look Kingstone Press Championship season is always eagerly anticipated by all clubs involved and recent seasons have seen a new level of intensity delivered every year with continual rising standards and much more attack orientated games than you tend to see in Super League.
This year is no different as you look down the squads of each of the twelve teams and can pick out match winners and classy players aplenty.
2015 signals the start of #RLNewEra and the Championship is no different with fresh life being breathed into the competition thanks to the brave restructure that will see the top four battle the bottom four Super League teams for promotion into the elite league for 2016 after the completion of 23 regular rounds of action.
The rest of the competition will play off for the Championship shield which will add renewed importance to all games.
Leigh Centurions may have comfortably topped the table last term but with Bradford Bulls and London Broncos dropping out of Super League and some shrewd squad investment from the rest of the teams it is hard to think that the Centurions will be as dominant this time round.
Both relegated clubs in Bradford and London have performed major surgery and restructuring with the Bulls bringing in fourteen new players and the Broncos recruiting a similar number as they attempt to reignite professional interest in the capital.
Leigh, Bradford and London will all have an advantage on the rest with being full-time and it will be facinating to see if the Centurions prolific half-back pairing of Martyn Ridyard and Ryan Brierley will have kicked on further. Ridyard was the most lethal marksman in the competition last term with 167 goals in all games while Brierley scored 43 tries. Leigh still have the bulk of last seasons successful squad to call on with Bob Beswick, Sean Penkywicz, Sam Barlow and Tommy Goulden all providing inspiration for a quick backline containing the likes of Gregg McNally, Liam Kay, Tom Armstrong and Adam Higson.The Centurions have arguably recruited the biggest profile player in the Championship with Fuifui Moimoi joining from NRL side Parramatta and the former New Zealand and Tonga international has lived up to his reputation during their friendlies. Perhaps more pleasing has been the form of fellow new recruits Gregg Worthington (Featherstone) and joint Kingstone Press League One Young Player of the Year Ben Reynolds (Castleford) who amassed 168 points for York in 16 games last term.
The Bulls have added quality to their ranks in the form of former Salford and Parramatta fullback Jake Mullaney and although he was restricted in game-time last year at Featherstone; finishing the season on-loan with Sheffield, Etu Uaisale has real try scoring prowess. With pack recruitment including former St Helens prop Paul Clough and ex Hull KR forward Dave Peterson returning from a spell in Australia, on paper at least the Bulls look to have more options than last term. With a threatening backline that contains the likes of Adrian Purtell, Matty Blythe, Adam Henry and Danny Williams. Lee Gaskell was one of the top performing halfbacks in Super League over the last three months of last season and his partnership with new signing Harry Siejka and Adam O’Brien will be pivotal to how the Bulls will go. The multi-talented Danny Addy will be looking for a big year while Dale Ferguson will also be keen to repay the Bulls faith having renewed his contract following an injury plagued 2014. Bradford have already shown in their pre-season games against Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos that they can certainly still mix it with the best.
London look to have recruited a potent backline, headlined by former Leeds, Wigan and Warrington fullback Richard Mathers who adds plenty of confidence to the side. Other solid looking signings for the campaign include Fijian international Wes Naiqama and Ben Farrer who had notable spells with North Queensland and Manly in the NRL. Prop Nick Slyney was one of the success stories of a largely forgettable 2014 for the club and he will receive support from Italy world cup hooker Ray Nasso and former Hull KR man Rhys Lovegrove. Warrington duo Brad Dwyer and Glenn Riley have also been recruited on-loan while Welsh international Rhys Williams returns from the Queensland Cup and will be able to offer Championship experience along with Scotland threequarter Ben Hellewell, who was cruelly underused at Featherstone and former Sheffield and York backrower Matt Garside. Encouraginly for the capital club there is also a good mix of young players but they may have to learn quickly if called upon to do a first team job, as the Broncos recent 34-6 humbling at Dewsbury perhaps showed.
One look at the Featherstone Rovers squad this year firmly puts them in the darkhorse bracket. Andy Hay and his backroom staff have worked hard to put Rovers disappointments behind them and with disruptive benefactors now well off the scene, the BigFellas Stadium, undergoing a revamp, looks set to become a fortress again. Having retained the likes of prolific Will Sharp from last season and highly rated playmakers Gareth Moore and Andy Ellis; Hay has worked overtime on recruitment to add plenty of Super League experience to his squad, bringing in the likes of Paul Sykes, Paul Wood and Garreth Carvell while also recruiting a former NRL player in the form of Reni Maitua in addition to Australians Sam Irwin, Ryan Verlinden and Jy Hitchcox.
Halifax have a new coach at the helm in Richard Marshall who has overseen the rise and rise of a new breed of hungry young player at Warrington. He has brought a fresh outlook that saw them in impressive form against Hull Kingston Rovers in pre-season before being brought down to earth recently by Huddersfield Giants. Like Featherstone, Fax have recruited from overseas, adding the likes of Adam Tangata, Mitch Callahane and Matt Place to their ranks. One lesser heralded arrival has been former Wolves Under-19s hooker Ryan Maneely while Chris Taylor could also prove a shrewd piece of business having impressed at Whitehaven last season whilst on loan from Wigan. 2015 could also see several squad members from Hull KR boosting Halifax following a recent dual-contract agreement between the two clubs.
Sheffield Eagles enter this season with renewed optimism having moved away from the gluepot pitch that awaited teams at Owlerton Greyhound Stadium last year. They have agreed a deal to play matches at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium, one of several initiatives between the two clubs that should see Rugby League progress in South Yorkshire. The Eagles have added Jamie Langley to thier ranks for 2015 and there are still the prolific Quentin Laulu-Togagae, Scott Turner, Menzie Yere and Misi Taulapapa in situ. Kyle Briggs, Dominic Brambani and Pat Waker make a good creative spine although the club has lost popular hooker Andrew Henderson who retired from playing at the end of last season. Mark Aston is another shrewd operator in the Championship and his recruitment of Tony Tonks, Rob Worrincy, John Davis and Ben Musolino could well turn out to be the best bit of business in the league. Expect to see more free-flowing rugby from the Eagles this season.
Another darkhorse side in the Championship could be Dewsbury Rams who boast possibly the most depth in the competition. During the close season they recruited Matty Wildie after a nomadic spell with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and there is certainly potential for his halfback partnership with Anthony Thackeray to develop. 28 year old Thackeray claimed 28 tries for the Rams last season and has perhaps the best show and go in all three professional divisions but has really come on as a playmaker in recent seasons. Toby Adamson went particularly well for North Wales Crusaders and deserves his opportunity to consistently play in the Championship while prising Byron Smith away from Batley following a long spell could really benefit the Rams pack which in fairness was their strong point last term. It would be remiss of a preview not to mention Makali Aizue and the big PNG prop is still capable of causing havoc to defences.
Doncaster enjoyed a tremendous season last term, deservedly finishing 4th and will once again have the backing of Hull as their dual contract partner. Player-coach Paul Cooke has done some considerable homework on his recruitment drive in the close season which has vastly reduced the average age of the squad. Key players for the Dons will again be hooker Kyle Kesik and loose forward Mike Emmett while Pasqualle Dunn showed a lot of promise last term having switched from playing rugby union with Leicester Tigers and both Danny Nicklas and Brett Waller will be eager to make up for lost time with injury ruining the chances of the halfback and prop to make an impact during 2014. There are a number of unknown quantities about the Doncaster squad this season and it will be interesting to see how they progress.
While Cooke may have took the coach of the year award last term, another man that deserves immense credit is Phil Veivers for his tranformation of Workington Town. Town are now keen to keep their tag as the top team in Cumbria and have renewed their partnership agreement with Wigan. They have also completed the permanent recruitment of Jack Murphy, a classy runner from fullback. Other key players for Town will be halfbacks Carl Forber and Callum Phillips while Jarrad Stack and Brett Phillips are two of the top second rowers in the Championship. Aussie recruitment in the form of Kurt Horton and Latu Fifita should increase Workington’s forward stock while Karl Olstrum is still a capable forward alongside former Whitehaven stalwart Graeme Mattinson and a wildcard in 2015 could be teenage fullback, wing or centre Theerapol Ritson who starred for the Cumbrian Academy side last term and earned selection to face the Aussie Schoolboys on their recent tour.
Batley Bulldogs currently have a smaller squad than many of their Championship rivals but there is no shortage of pedigree. A recruitment drive has seen John Kear bring in twelve players including former Whitehaven trio Shaun Ainscough, Cain Southernwood and Lee Mitchell. For Cain Southernwood it is an opportunity to return to play closer to home after two years in Cumbria. The 22 year old was Haven’s top point scorer last season and could form a potent combination with Scott Leatherbarrow, Anthony Nicholson and Alistair Leek. Kear has also welcomed Johnny Campbell back to the fold and recruited experienced pack men Keegan Hirst and Sean Hesketh. Although not a new player having joined midway through last season, utility back Jordan Grayston could push for regular selection while former Castleford player Brad Hey has earned praise for his application in training.
Hunslet Hawks earned promotion from League One in dramatic fashion with a sudden death Grand Final win in October and with their recruitment and partnership with Leeds Rhinos could shock a few sides this season, particularly on the open spaces of the South Leeds Stadium. Althouh several members of their Grand Final team have moved on, quality has been recruited in Featherstone Rovers playmakers George Flanagan, once of Batley and Bradford and Andy Kain who claimed 129 tries in 210 games for Rovers. Vinny Finigan has Championship pedigree while Elliot Cosgrove and Richie Barnett add plenty of competition in the Hawks threequarters.
It will be interesting to see how Mo Agoro and Mufaro Mvududu step up having enjoyed good spells with Oldham and London Skolars while Jack Lee was also successful with York. Size has been brought in to support Michael Haley and James Houston up front with Brad Brennan cutting short a stint at Batley and Mark Castle ending a long association with Doncaster.
Last but by no means least; Whitehaven undertook a complete rebuild of their squad in close season after the appointment of Steve Deakin to replace Dave Woods. But a disappointing pre-season lurched toward crisis point with Deakin resigning just a week before the start of the season. Recent history has not been kind to the Cumbrians who have desperately been seeking the sort of stability that marked them out as one of the teams to beat at this level between 2003 and 2006. Despite being able to recruit the likes of Dave Allen (Widnes) and Ben Davies (Halifax) while also convincing top amateur player John Paul Brocklebank to give the professional game a go, they will be reliant on their old guard of Craig Calvert, Scott McAvoy and James Robinson. Brett Seymour had a troubled spell with Hull but has since found a new lease of life on the West Cumbrian coast. It will be interesting to see how halfback Dion Aiye settles in alongside his compatriot and free scoring PNG international Jessie Joe Nandye. While Nandye and youngster Jordan Burns will go a long way to making Haven competitive, as will the form of Wigan born brothers James and Thomas Coyle. Their home form will be crucial over the season and there is no way that anyone will relish a trip to the Recreation Ground.
Competition Venues: Fox’s Biscuit Stadium, Provident Stadium, The Tetley’s Stadium, Keepmoat Stadium, The BigFellas Stadium, The Shay, South Leeds Stadium, Leigh Sports Village, The Hive, The Recreation Ground, Zebra Claims Stadium, Bloomfield Road.
The Men in Charge: Batley: John Kear (since September 2011), Bradford: James Lowes (since June 2014), Dewsbury: Glenn Morrison (since September 2012), Doncaster: Paul Cooke (since September 2013), Featherstone: Andy Hay (since May 2014), Halifax: Richard Marshall (since September 2014), Hunslet: Barry Eaton (since September 2011), Leigh: Paul Rowley (since February 2012), London: Joe Grima (since May 2014), Sheffield: Mark Aston (since November 2006), Whitehaven: Vacant, Workington: Phil Veivers (since March 2014).
Structure: 23 rounds consisting home and away ties against every other team plus the Summer Bash at Blackpool FC’s Bloomfield Road on 23/24 May 2015. Top Four head into “The Qualifiers” with the bottom four teams in the Super League campaign culminating in the top 3 of “The Qualifiers” going into Super League for 2016 plus the winners of a 4th v 5th “Million Pound Match” to be played on 3/4 October, while the remainder play each other again for the Championship Shield relegation also at stake to League One.
Points for a win: 2, points for a draw: 1, points for a loss: 0. There are no bonus points available in the new structure.