As we trade in the Christmas dinners for match day meat pies, the focus shifts to a new season in the ever-improving Betfred Championship.
All eyes will be on the big prize, promotion to Super League, something that has evaded nearly half the clubs in the league, with the remainder dreaming of a return to the big time.
Following Toronto’s promotion, 2020 could prove to be the most competitive Championship division for some time and we are all set for an intriguing campaign.
Here is my club-by-club guide to the league this season and my predicted finishes for each team.
First up is heartland club Batley Bulldogs, surviving once again for another year in the Championship. They are under new management this season as Craig Lingard steps in to replace Matt Diskin in the hopes of reviving their flagging fortunes.
With a much lower budget than many others, Batley’s recruitment has not been as heavy as they would have maybe hoped. You can’t however write them off as they possess plenty of experience, such as Dane Manning, who recently surpassed 100 appearances for the club.
Other key players include Alistair Leak, Michael Ward and James Brown, who have performed superbly, keeping them competitive in recent years, and they will no doubt cause a few shocks again this season.
As far as recruitment goes, Dewsbury duo Dale Morton and Lucas Walshaw will add some much needed pace, but their biggest capture is former Super League champion Shaun Lunt, who arrives following a brief stint at Leeds.
On their day, Batley can compete with most and they possess match winners in their team, especially in the backs, with the likes of Wayne Reittie, David Scott and Ben White. Unfortunately, when you compare the Bulldogs squad to the rest of the league you can’t help but feel they will lose more matches than they win.
Another off-season of uncertainty at Bradford as they leave behind their iconic Odsal home to ground share with Dewsbury Rams from 2020 onwards. That’s only part of the story that has also seen a change in Chairman and a whole host of players leave.
Despite this, the Bulls have retained some of their talent from last season that almost saw them reach the play-offs. Key playmakers Jordan Lilley and Rowan Milnes will guide the team around the park, with strong forwards Liam Kirk and Steve Crossley to lead from the front.
There performance in the game against Leeds also brought positives, none more so than 22-year-old full-back Brandon Pickersgill who was nothing short of outstanding. He along with those mentioned above and some useful additions can make the Bulls competitive.
But it will take all of John Kear’s nous to get this young side anywhere near the playoffs and you can’t help but feel that there are stronger sides in the division. Too much transition at Bradford will see them endure a tough season I feel.
Championship regulars Dewsbury are back for another season and will be aiming for a top half finish after some heavy recruitment. Veterans Liam Finn and Paul Sykes will continue in the halves but the rest of the team may take a while to gel.
The Rams have drafted in Chris Annakin from Wakefield, Sheffield duo Sonny Esslemont and James Thornton, Featherstone pair Morgan Punchard and Jason Walton and Dom Speakman returns from Widnes.
Head Coach Lee Greenwood, who has over 20 years of professional experience, has a big job on his hands and it could take time for Dewsbury to get their combinations right. They will want to sort this quickly though in a division that holds no prisoners.
The Rams should provide some fierce opposition but like the two sides mentioned above, their squad looks fairly weak in comparison to the rest of the division, which is why, unfortunately, they will be in the lower reaches of the table.
The ‘flat cappers’ came so close to promotion in 2019 after recording three sensational play-off victories before falling short against Toronto Wolfpack. They look to have built a solid squad for 2020 and will be going all out to earn a spot in the top flight.
Super League trio Craig Hall, Dale Ferguson and Brett Ferres arrive and will provide plenty of attacking options – something the talented Louis Jouffret, Dane Chisholm and another ‘newbie’ Dean Parata can thrive off.
The biggest task for new boss James Webster is to go that extra mile and completely overcome their full-time rivals in the play-off series in order to gain their long-awaited promotion.
Featherstone’s strong squad makes them one of the leading contenders for promotion and joint-favourites with most bookies. Their coaching staff, roster and recruitment all look to have hit the mark, so you have to feel they will go close again.
Halifax return with a stronger squad than last season and will be hopeful of a better league campaign. Super League stars in Jodie Broughton, Scott Grix and Keegan Hirst come in alongside Tom Gilmore and Matt Garside.
All possessing bags of talent, Hirst and Garside link up with Elliott Morris, Kevin Larroyer, Ed Barber and Jacob Fairbank, and with Brandon Moore and Keal Carlile at acting half, Fax possess a formidable front line.
As for the backs, Gilmore and Scott Murrell should prove to be a tricky combination too and despite not being backed by the bookies for promotion, you have to fancy Simon Grix’s side to challenge with this squad.
Having reached the Challenge Cup semi-final in 2019, the West Yorkshire outfit proved they can play on the big stage. But their part-time status and lack of consistency, as shown last season, could see another play-off challenge fall short.
After recovering from their financial woes, Leigh look more settled now and could be serious contenders for promotion once more. Familiar faces such as Gregg McNally, Jonny Pownall, Martyn Ridyard and Tom Spencer helped in their recovery and are set to remain for the foreseeable future.
New arrivals for 2020 include Wigan quadruplet Callum Field, Craig Mullen, Josh Woods and Jarrod Sammut, while Nathan Mason and Ben Hellewell arrive from London Broncos. They have signed some big names on paper and John Duffy possesses a healthy looking squad.
They have a good range of experience and youth to select from and boast exciting options in the halves, what with Ridyard’s immaculate kicking game and Sammut’s superb natural ability.
Despite gaining promotion to the top flight in 2016, Leigh have struggled to perform on the big occasion. Their defeat to Featherstone in last year’s play-offs was a big blow but if they can turn it on at the back end of the season, they have every chance of a Super League return.
Unsurprisingly everybody’s favourites to return to the top flight will be London Broncos. They fell agonisingly short of survival last season and although London’s squad may be changed, they have still recruited well.
Under many people’s Super League Coach of the Year Danny Ward, The Broncos are easily capable of becoming the team to beat in the Championship. Recruits such as Olly Ashall-Bott, who looked promising when entering the scene with Widnes, as well as big winger Tuoyo Egodo, will provide the capital club with good attacking options.
New half-backs Cory Aston and Morgan Smith could become lethal after a few games together and who will lay the platform down for such players? The pack! Sandwich boy Eddie Battye and towering Rob Butler will provide the hard yards.
Furthermore, capturing Josh Walters and Rhys Curran is also impressive, both already having experience in a full-time environment. In addition, with Eloi Pelissier to guide them at hooker, the Broncos should remain a tricky and speedy side to contend with.
Recent experience in Super League provides them with a distinct advantage as the players will have improved their fitness levels from their top flight campaign. With an impressive squad under the best young coach in the country, London will be heavily backed to bounce straight back up.
Newly-promoted Oldham return to the Championship and will be setting their sights on survival. Danny Langtree returns after his unsuccessful stint with Hull FC, with half-back Lewis Charnock journeying down from Cumbria to join.
Other squad members to have graced the top flight are Ben Davies, Danny Bridge and captain Gareth Owen remain with the club. Oldham are not to be underestimated, especially under Matt Diskin.
Yes, they possess a rather small squad, on a small budget as a part-time group, but the underdog status may play into their hands. Pick up a few injuries though and the tough task of staying up may become impossible, and their lack of depth has to worry the Roughyeds fans.
The ‘history makers’ may have relived their Wembley heroics last year but life may be slightly tougher for the Sheffield Eagles in 2020. Having started last season on fire, Mark Aston’s side fell away near the end and missed out on the play-offs.
They have plenty of experience, Anthony Thackeray remaining for another year, having become a cult hero with the club, finishing as their top try-scorer in 2019. Joining him are former Featherstone colleagues Scott Wheeldon and Frankie Mariano, with Rob Worrincy, Izaac Farrell and Robbie Ward providing more options.
Captained by Matt James and coached under legends Aston and Keith Senior, Sheffield will be tricky opposition once again in 2020, but the play-offs still might be a step too far, especially given the strength of the rest of the division.
In more ways than one, there have been questions over their Lions’ very existence, whether they remain Swinton, move to Manchester, or remain alive at all. But they’re back and given such resilience, this is what could very well see them survive once again.
Retaining skilful players such as Oscar Thomas, Luke Waterworth and captain Rhodri Lloyd is crucial, as they arguably helped them to their surprisingly strong 2019 season. Let’s not forget the forwards, such as Gavin Bennion, Will Hope and Billy Brickhill, who, amongst others, formed a reliable group that helped the Lions survive under seasoned coach Stuart Littler.
However, Swinton’s strict budget has seen them unable to add anyone ‘notable’, with respect, to their squad and with their rivals strengthening, the Lions could fall behind. It will be another long, hard season, but given their tenacity, they should have enough to survive relegation for the fifth consecutive season.
Three seasons in the Championship has seen Toulouse go ever so close to promotion but they just falter when it matters most, so will 2020 be any different?
Retaining seasoned skilful players in Jonathan Ford, Stan Robin, Anthony Marion and of course former top points scorer Mark Kheirallah is a stroke of genius by the club. As for new signings, Samoan duo Harrison Hansen and Frank Winterstein arrive along with Australian Jy Hitchcox and Welshman Lloyd White.
These new additions may be the missing ingredients Toulouse have lacked the last three years, after all, a breath of fresh air surely won’t harm their promotion chances. The French outfit have averaged almost 900 points the past two years and a repeat of that, combined with a more resolute defence, could see them earn that elusive promotion to Super League.
Another newly-promoted side, this time in the shape of Cumbrian outfit Whitehaven who, much like Oldham, will be aiming to stay in the division. They too have a small squad and the main story up there is stalwart Jamie Thackray’s decision to come out of retirement.
Playing alongside Brett Philips, Kris Coward and Marc Shackley, Thackray and Haven could very well prove to be difficult to handle at times. In addition, they have exciting backs in Jessie Joe Parker, Dion Aiye and Callum Phillips, who will be key to their survival hopes.
Whitehaven’s chances this season will very much fall on their home form, and there is no doubt they will claim some scalps with the long trip up to Cumbria never easy for visiting teams. Despite this, they will go into most games as underdogs and could find life back in the Championship tough.
Widnes return for what should be a much stronger Championship season after recovering from their points deduction in 2019. Under new boss Tim Sheens the Vikings will be targeting the play-offs and they have the team to do it.
New recruits include Liam Cooper from St Helens, Featherstone duo Jack Johnson and Jake Spedding, Shane Grady returning after a stint at Halifax, plus Matty Smith, Pat Moran and Logan Tomkins stepping down from Super League too.
A forward pack including both Jay and Ted Chapelhow will provide the hard yards, along with Sam Wilde and the feared Macgraff Leuluai. With Smith, Danny Craven and Joe Lyons as half-back options, Widnes can catch teams off guard as all three can continuously rotate, something of a tactic that has paid off for clubs in the past.
Though they remain part-time due to their difficulties, Widnes will challenge for the play-offs in what should be yet another almighty race. The real test is whether they can be consistent enough to achieve it, especially against the bigger teams.
York City Knights
York are a club that are liked by many and they stunned all with a third place finish last year. Given their recruitment and the look of their overall squad, they look set for yet another strong season.
Danny Washbrook, Jordan Baldwinson and Chris Clarkson all arrive from Super League, joined by James Green and former Halifax duo Ben Johnston and Will Sharp. Coach James Ford is easily capable of getting the very best out of such players, having already worked his magic since 2015.
They already add to highly talented players such as Matty Marsh, Connor Robinson, Will Jubb and Tim Spears, who played a huge part in their resurgence last season. Though they fell short in the play-offs, such additions could very well be the missing ingredient to potentially take the Knights further.
Having already proved they can match it with the best of this division, York are undoubtedly a future Super League club. Whether that is this season remains to be seen, but they have every chance!