THE NORTHERN RAIL CUP gets underway this weekend with the Leigh Centurions looking to defend their title. On the other hand, however, many of the eyes will be focusing on rivals the Widnes Vikings and Castleford Tigers, both of whom have a stronger squad than the Centurions who have had to rebuild during the summer.
Castleford were relegated for the second time in three years, after losing to a last day defeat in Round 28 of Super League last year, to near rivals Wakefield Wildcats in the "Battle of Belle Vue". Since that day, Coach Terry Matterson agreed to stay and has formulated a squad capable of competing in Super League never mind the National Leagues. Leading from the front will be Danny Brough and Ryan McGoldrick, both of whom have agreed to stay after signing new contracts with the Tigers. Also recruited is NRL superstar Awen Guttenbeil, from the New Zealand Warriors, and add to those Stuart Donlan, Tom Saxton, Kirk Dixon, and Liam Higgins and you can see why the Tigers are early season favourites.
The Vikings have also tried to match big spenders Castleford, by recruiting their own competitive side, to help win the Northern Rail Cup, and also do a league double. The Vikings have plenty of Super League experience with Mick Cassidy in their ranks, Dennis Moran, Toa Kohe Love and Paul Noone, the Vikings are looking very strong in the backs and in the front row. Add to this the National League experience provided by Andy Kain, Jordan James, Damien Blanch, Mark Smith and Mick Nanyn, the Vikings are also promotion contenders.
Last Tackle has evaluated each group prospectively.
Group 1: Sheffield Eagles, Doncaster Lakers, Castleford Tigers and Featherstone Rovers.
View: Castleford Tigers will be the obvious favourites for the aforementioned reasons. Doncaster Lakers have also recruited well, although suffered an early confidence setback, when they played Castleford, losing by 44 points to 16. They will be looking to get off to a good start however, and will provide a stern test for the other three sides. Sheffield Eagles will be looking for this to help their team gel ready for a tough National League One campaign after being promoted through the play-offs last season. Featherstone meanwhile, have named this group, the 'group of death'. This should be an excellent chance for them to find out their potential, ready for what should be an exciting National League Two campaign.
Last Tackle Prediction: Castleford to win group comfortably, with Doncaster finishing 2nd just. Both Featherstone and Sheffield will push the top two sides all the way though, in what should be a thrilling Group A. Group 2: Gateshead Thunder, Halifax RLFC, Keighley Cougars and York City Knights.
View: The interesting thing to note is that Halifax have a clear advantage, while Gateshead have a disadvantage. Halifax have been paired with a trio of National League Two sides, which puts them the bookies' favourite to finish directly top. The other sides will be battling it out to finish second. Gateshead Thunder have a lot to do, having being paired with three Yorkshire clubs, which will make the away games harder for them, travelling long distances. Under the guidance of coach Dave Woods though, the Thunder will be pushing for a play-off place this season. The York City Knights will be looking for a decent run in the cup, to boost the squad ahead of what should prove to be a very difficult National League Two campaign.
Last Tackle Prediction: Halifax to finish top; Gateshead or Keighley to finish second. Halifax should win this comfortably, and its a choice of any of the three to finish second. The guidance of Dave Woods was enough to take Castleford up from NL1 in 2005, and he will be looking to impress under pressure again this season.
Group 3: Batley Bulldogs, Dewsbury Rams and Hunslet Hawks
View: Both Group 3 and 4 interlock with fixtures played across both groups. Rochdale play Batley twice, while Oldham and Swinton face Dewsbury and Hunslet twice respectively, due to only 3 teams being in each group. Batley will be favourites, having made the play-offs last season. However, the task of facing Rochdale twice may restrict their chances. Dewsbury have been paired with Oldham, and look to have the easiest pairings, and with Hunslet rounding it off, having the clear disadvantage of being paired with two sides in the divison above, the task looks immensely difficult for the Hawks.
View: Rochdale will be very difficult to beat both home and away, and should easily beat the other sides from the National League Two competition. Swinton finished in the play-offs last season, and made the final only to lose out to Sheffield Eagles. They will be looking to have a good cup run to help prepare for another push for the play-offs this season. Oldham will also be looking to get back on track after they have been on the downhill slope for a couple of seasons.
View: Whitehaven are another side with a clear advantage. Under coach Dave Rotherham, they will be looking to return the promise they had under previous coach Steve McCormack, and will be in and around the NL1 playoffs this season. Therefore a good cup run is needed to help push them against the bigboys and they should have no trouble finish top of this group. Their nearest rivals will be from Barrow or Workington Town, however neither side should threaten where Whitehaven finish. To round it off, Blackpool have a difficult task to finish anywhere above third.
Last Tackle Predictions: Whitehaven to finish top; Barrow to finish second.
Group 6: Celtic Crusaders, Widnes Vikings, London Skolars and Leigh Centurions.
View: Widnes will be clear favourites to get out of this group, however they have competition from Leigh and Celtic Crusaders who will be both looking for good seasons ahead of their respective promotion pushes this season. Widnes have the strength (see introductory view), however Leigh have rebuilt and may find it difficult to gel early on which may provide their downfall. Celtic Crusaders have also rebuilt however, have recruited some big names from Australia and Rugby Union for their second season under John Dixon. London Skolars, will find it difficult to get a sniff of second, and will finish in one of the bottom two places.
View: Hemel Hempstead Stags will be the favourites to win this group along with Bramley Buffaloes, however Warrington will provide a stern test. Hemel and Bramley competed last years National League Three final, and look set for a tasty encounter early on in the Northern Rail Cup this season. Dewsbury will try to mount a serious test this season, after missing out last season.
Last Tackle Predictions: Hemel Hempstead Stags to finish top with Bramley Buffaloes second.
Whatever the games, whatever the scores, all games in this cup should provide a fantastic spectacle for the coming season. Early season favourites Castleford, Widnes, and Doncaster will be looking to get off to good starts ahead of the National Leagues kick off on April 6th.
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