The Championship and League 1 fixtures have been announced by the RFL.
The dates for the opening fixtures have been confirmed, although kick off times are yet to be decided. A number of format changes have also been agreed by clubs.
Everything will be confirmed after talks with streaming companies.
The Championship will return after a year’s absence over the Easter weekend in April with a new club in Newcastle Thunder, a new name in Halifax Panthers, and a new stadium in York.
Thunder, who were elevated from League 1 last December to take the Championship place vacated by Leigh’s promotion to the Super League, will kick off at Kingston Park with an attractive fixture against Widnes Vikings.
There is set to be several reunions with this fixture, as the Newcastle brains trust of Denis Betts and Eamon O’Carroll both have strong links with Widnes, while the new Vikings coach Simon Finnigan left Thunder to take up that position last year.
Meanwhile York City Knights, who have made a number of eyecatching signings with considerable Super League experience including Ryan Atkins, Adam Cuthbertson and Ben Jones-Bishop, will play their first competitive fixture at the 8,500-capacity LNER Community Stadium against Toulouse.
The opening round of fixtures also includes a traditional Easter derby between Oldham and Swinton Lions, while Featherstone Rovers will host Batley Bulldogs, Whitehaven travel to Dewsbury Rams, and John Kear’s Bradford Bulls face the club he guided to famous Wembley victory in 1998, Sheffield Eagles.
Championship games that are played behind closed doors will be live streamed on the Our League app & website with home season ticket holders given free access to their club’s live stream and all other fans able to watch via Pay Per View.
The Championship season comprises 22 rounds of fixtures running until the weekend of September 19, with each of the 14 teams playing nine of the other 13 twice and the other four once.
The Summer Bash will not be played in 2021 because of the expectation that crowds will have to be socially-distanced and therefore limited when fans are permitted to return.
Championship Opening Round (Easter weekend, April 2-5 – dates and kick-off times tbc)
Dewsbury Rams v Whitehaven
Featherstone Rovers v Batley Bulldogs
Halifax Panthers v London Broncos
Newcastle Thunder v Widnes Vikings
Oldham v Swinton Lions
Sheffield Eagles v Bradford Bulls
York City Knights v Toulouse Olympique.
Doncaster will kick off their League 1 campaign on the weekend of May 8-9 at Keighley Cougars, when the other opening round fixtures include Hunslet hosting Workington Town, the promotion favourites Barrow Raiders travelling to Coventry Bears, London Skolars taking on North Wales Crusaders, and a trip to Rochdale Hornets for the West Wales Raiders.
In League 1, there will be a full home and away programme producing 18 rounds of fixtures ending one week earlier than the Championship, on the weekend of September 12.
League 1 Opening Round (May 8-9 – dates and kick-off times tbc)
Coventry Bears v Barrow Raiders
Hunslet v Workington Town
Keighley Cougars v Doncaster
London Skolars v North Wales Crusaders
Rochdale Hornets v West Wales Raiders.
Following a meeting of Championship and League 1 clubs with the RFL last week, it has been agreed that positions on the league table in each competition will be determined by points percentage, as in the Super League in 2020.
This is to recognise the likelihood of fixtures being affected by Covid-19, with postponements permitted if a team loses seven or more players for Covid-related reasons – either players with positive tests, or who have been ruled out through test and trace analysis of close contacts in matches or training.
The first option will be for matches to be rearranged on a free date – but if this is not possible, the fixture will be cancelled.
It has also been determined to suspend Golden Point Extra Time for drawn matches for the 2021 season, following concerns expressed at the meeting for the welfare of players who will have gone more than a year since their last fixture, and the majority of whom are part-time. The intention is to reintroduce Golden Point for the 2022 campaign.