The wait is almost over! It is nearly time for the Betfred Championship to come out of hiding and take to the field once more.
Almost a year ago, the Championship was put on hold before the 2020 season became null and voided as it was unsustainable to continue along with Super League after the first national lockdown.
But from the 2nd of April, the competition will resume, albeit under a shortened format, for that all-important place for Super League, pending on a final decision to proceed with promotion and relegation.
Always considered a ‘bogey’ team are the Batley Bulldogs as they can certainly surprise any club on a game day. They still possess experience throughout the squad as well as skilful pivots in Ben White and Danny Yates plus the additions of Jack Logan and Kieran Buchanan from Hull FC will certainly help. Under head coach and former Batley player Craig Lingard, the best of the Bulldogs could still come; however, remaining a part-time club against such stiff competition remains a decisive factor.
Their hopes of a swift return to Super League may have been denied but surely that will not stop “super coach” John Kear and his Bradford side?! Kear possesses a select of talented youngsters in his side and if anyone can get the best out of them, it is he. Captained by Danny Brough, who is partnered by Jordan Lilley at half-back, the Bulls will prove to be difficult opponents for all in 2021.
Just like their arch-rivals, Dewsbury Rams are another club not to be underestimated. Lee Greenwood has vastly experienced players in Paul Sykes and Liam Finn at half-back plus Jason Walton, Michael Knowles and Chris Annakin in the back row. However, their squad depth is a factor and could cost them should they get injuries or have to isolate due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
A team with unfinished business are the Featherstone Rovers. A fitting motto considering they narrowly missed out in the 2019 Million Pound Game, which was then followed by their rejection by the RFL when applying for the final Super League spot. However, now they have a fantastic chance to earn it outright with what looks a formidable team. Having Super League experience in almost every position as well as impressive signings in the readmission of Tom Holmes to join Samoan duo Junior Moors and Fa’amanu Brown, Featherstone will be one of the teams to beat and just might finally realise their top-flight dream.
New brand but will Halifax return stronger? ‘Fax have some talented players, such as Liam Harris and Connor Robinson at half-back plus Gadwin Springer and Greg Worthington who have been brought in from Super League. However, their squad depth is an issue as they have a lot of untested youngsters backing up their forward pack that may become overwhelmed in what will be a trying season under the current conditions. But never say never as ‘Fax have defied the odds more than once before.
Speaking of unfinished business, after all these years, will the sport ever get going in London? The Broncos are back but may be in for a much tougher fight this time around. Regaining Jarrod Sammut is a bonus, but losing several of their forward pack has arguably spelled a period of transition for the Londoners which could easily hinder any chance of promotion. Danny Ward has proved an excellent coach and thus, they will be a dominant side but given their changes, it may take some time.
Can the game also expand up North? Newcastle Thunder were fortunate enough to be awarded place in the Championship following Leigh’s promotion to Super League. The 22-year-old club, now under Coach Eamon O’Carroll, desire a tougher challenge. Captained by veteran Bob Beswick as well as having powerful forwards like Mikey Wood plus exciting pivots in Jake Shorrocks and Josh Woods, Newcastle will be a tricky team. However, being newly promoted is never easy so they may find themselves at the wrong end of the table, but they have signalled their intent to hopefully join the top level one day so do not fully count them out.
Having somewhat avoided an immediate return back to League 1 last year, no doubt that will be Matt Diskin’s first aim this season. However, he has an almighty job on his hands. Oldham are one of the more provincial clubs and will struggle, especially given their lack of game time during the lay-off. Though they do have some fire in their squad, it will be long season for them and could very well spell a return back a division.
Sheffield have retained much of their 2020 squad and, having had a tricky start and a string of unlucky results, sticking together may see them come back stronger. Coached by former Wembley hero Mark Aston, assisted by Keith Senior and captained by Matt James and having an experienced and sizeable forward pack, Sheffield will be a tough side to beat in 2021. However, playing in unfamiliar surroundings and the uncertainty of their ‘home’ may hinder them and their plans so it may another year of simply ‘making up the numbers’.
They certainly know how to survive and adapt and there is no reason why Swinton are unable to do so once again. Having survived relegation since their admission in 2016, as well as their financial difficulties off-field, Swinton are back for more in 2021. Under Stuart Littler, they possess experienced players in Martyn Ridyard, Mike Butt, Jack Hansen and captain Will Hope. Though they look rather inexperienced in depth, no doubt they will all be hungry for action and could very well cause an upset or two heading forward.
Should all go according to plan, pending on this unpredictable pandemic, Toulouse Olympique should be the team to beat. They have recruited superbly, having brought in Mitch Garbutt, Dominique Peyroux, Joseph Paulo, Eloi Pelissier and Remi Casty, which demonstrates they mean business. Adding to already impressive attackers in Jonathan Ford, William Barthau and Mark Kheirallah, the French side will be a force to be reckoned with.
From top to bottom, Whitehaven could be everyone’s favourites for that wooden spoon. New players have arrived, but such a transition coupled with their own financial worries, ‘Haven will have it tough.They may prove us wrong and might even truly kick rugby league off in Cumbria, but that looks highly doubtful for the foreseeable future unfortunately.
After an incredibly difficult three years, Widnes Vikings will be ready to go again in 2021. Under Simon Finnigan, the Vikings have recruited well and, having added to their already talented squad, will pose a serious threat to the play-offs. Though their transitional period may see them stutter, they will return as a competitive side in what are exciting times ahead for the club.
York City Knights
Their 20th season in professional rugby league could very well be a historic one for the York City Knights. York have been competitive in recent seasons, improving year on year.Having recruited superbly in all areas, James Ford has a title-contending squad on his hands and could very well make the club’s “heartland expansion” dream a reality.