With the Northern Rail Cup kicking off in little over a week, a whole host of clubs will fancy their chances of success and the precious commodity of a Super League application in 2011.
In Pool A, holders Widnes Vikings begin their campaign at home to Championship 1 side Gateshead Thunder. Paul Cullen’s men overpowered Barrow Raiders in last season’s showpiece final at Bloomfield Road and the former Warrington boss has added a wealth of Super League experience to the ranks with the signings of Gareth Haggerty, James Ford and Matt Gardner. The emergence of rising stars Paddy Flynn and Ben Kavanagh has ensured the club has an exciting future ahead of them as they strive to secure top-flight rugby league five years since their relegation.
The stand-out tie of the pool is a repeat of last season’s final as Widnes and Barrow lock-horns at the Stobart Stadium on Valentine’s Day, Raiders’ boss Steve McCormack returning to his old club. The former Vikings supremo joined the champions following his resignation from his post at Gateshead. McCormack has drafted in a number of new-signings including ex-Widnes second-rower, Richard Fletcher and former Gateshead man Michael Knowles as chairman, Des Johnson opens the coffers at Craven Park.
With Widnes, Barrow and of course Halifax already in the mix for Super League applications, the spotlight is on those clubs honing ambitions of their own.
Mark Aston’s Sheffield Eagles are a team with a lot of potential. They start their assault with a tough Pool B game at home to Championship Grand Finalists, Halifax. Despite a great finish in the league, the Eagles were stopped in their tracks by Featherstone Rovers in the play-offs. Aston will not have long to wait before he can gain his revenge as the two clubs clash on February 7th. The move to Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane football stadium for the 2010 season will be a major boost for the development of rugby league in the city. Papua New Guinea international, Menzie Yere, had an excellent first season in South Yorkshire and the 27-year-old will be hoping for more of the same as the Eagles aim to get back into the big-time.
Leigh Centurions had a disappointing 2009 season by their standards but are sure to be a different proposition under the guidance of well-travelled coach, Ian Millward. Millward who led St Helens to two Super League titles and two Challenge Cups before a disastrous spell as Wigan coach, returns to the realms of his former club. After the uncertainty surrounding Leigh’s potential relegation to Championship 1, the Centurions were given the all-clear to begin building for 2010. And Leigh have immediately put a marker down to their rival clubs with the capture of influential half-back Robbie Paul. Many see the signing as a real coup for the club and a signal of intent as the club exercise ambitions of getting back to the big-time. Millward also completed the signing of former Whitehaven and Widnes player, John Duffy. The hooker has penned a two-year deal with the cherry and whites and alongside Robbie Paul, will line up against rivals Oldham in the Northern Rail Cup opener.
Batley Bulldogs could be the surprise package this season. After newly-appointed coach, Karl Harrison narrowly avoided relegation with a magnificent final day victory away at Featherstone, the club has rebuilt in the close season. The Bulldogs have had an impressive pre-season including a 40-12 victory over Huddersfield Giants, albeit against a youthful side. Harrison has strengthened with an array of signings including Sean Hesketh from York City Nights and the return of Tommy Gallagher who spent last season at Rochdale Hornets. The “Dogs” were also buoyed by the news that athletic prop, Jon Simpson pledged his future to the club for a third successive season. Batley begin the Northern Rail with a tricky trip to Whitehaven before hosting Widnes at Mount Pleasant.