Competitive rugby league is within touching distance with the Championship getting underway on Saturday when Barrow Raiders host Toulouse – and it looks set to be one of the most entertaining seasons in memory with plenty of teams set for a realistic promotion push.
Last year we saw Leigh storm their way to the title as they strung 25 consecutive wins together following a round two defeat to Featherstone and in 2021 a Covid impacted season saw Toulouse register 14 wins from 14 on their way to promotion.
The upcoming 2023 campaign still has a standout team according to the bookmakers but the recruitment across the whole competition has created a hugely competitive fight at the top with probably ten teams fighting for the playoff spots.
Based on pre-season performances, signings, and bookmakers odds, here’s how we predict the 2023 Championship table will finish.
14th: Swinton Lions – 100/1
Whilst Swinton aren’t the rank outsiders for the title they’re one of two teams in triple figure odds and they’ve simply not added enough to avoid a repeat of 2021 when they also placed 14th. Their pre-season has actually been impressive with a strong win over Midlands Hurricanes and a gutsy second-half fightback against what was effectively Salford’s reserves, but the strength of the league means they’re sadly our pick for 14th.
13th: Whitehaven – 150/1
Haven are actually the longest odds in the competition to go and win it and they’re a club that have openly admitted financial concerns which has in turn led to a lack of quality recruitment. The use of the loan system in which they’ve lent on Salford has helped but a damning sign for them was hooker Josh Eaves signing and then leaving immediately to sign for fellow outsiders Swinton. Pre-season against Super League teams including a strong Cas side means they haven’t taught us much about them either.
12th: London Broncos – 66/1
Whilst London are still only four seasons removed from Super League it seems more likely they’ll exit the Championship via relegation than promotion any time soon. They’ve put together a squad for 2023 but only just with Broncos heading into the season with just 22 players and losing two stars, Brad Walker and Robert Tuliatu, to Championship rivals. Having played just one pre-season fixture against city rivals London Skolars there’s little to really know about their preparedness.
11th: Newcastle Thunder – 80/1
It feels harsh to put Newcastle as low as this given their incredible recruitment and coaching overhaul, but such is the strength of the division. Chris Thorman returns to his native Tyneside and they’ve recruited very well and also signed a dual registration deal with Hull FC. Pre-season has seen them lose to Keighley but the problem for Newcastle will be trying to bleed in that huge number of signings, if they can manage it then they could far outperform this position.
10th: Sheffield Eagles – 25/1
Another team who it feels harsh to place as low as this but Sheffield are simply victims of so many other sides having gone heavy on recruitment. Of course the Eagles have new found stability with their Olympic Legacy Park home and they’re a side that’s actually impressed during pre-season. Their game against Hull FC was particularly noteworthy, with the Airlie Birds needing the impact of Brad Dwyer late on to deny the Eagles a famous win. Sheffield are a side that on their day can knock anyone off.
9th: York Knights – 12/1
The Knights are actually joint third favourites to go up and whilst there is certainly talent in their squad and vast experience with their coaches, it could be a case of it being rushed together. The loss of James Ford who had been coach since 2015 and overseen Knights rise to the Championship is immense and can’t be understated. He’s tipped as a future England coach for a reason and with the loss of Irish international Brendan O’Hagan, who has returned to Australia, the Knights could get dragged into the bottom half.
8th: Widnes Vikings – 25/1
John Kear’s Widnes have added even more experience with Kyle Amor heading to the club, but the man used to titles from his time at St Helens may not be competing for one this year with the Vikings looking set for another season lingering around the halfway mark of the table. Pre-season has been strong though and the performance against St Helens this past weekend for Mark Percival’s testimonial was admirable and one that they’ll take forward into their opener against York, where they’ll aim to spring a surprise.
7th: Batley Bulldogs – 16/1
The side who made it to the Million Pound Game last season could just miss out on the playoffs this upcoming year and one of the key reasons that they may not be as successful would be the loss of fullback Luke Hooley. He’s headed to Headingley now and his loss will be huge, in particular his 21 tries across 32 games. Adding the experience of Elliot Kear and Keegan Hirst is huge for them though and they’re a team that does have a wide variance of finishing positions.
6th: Barrow Raiders – 25/1
They might have lost the 2022 season’s joint top scorer but Barrow still look very strong. A shock fourth placed finish in 2022 having just been promoted means that they’ll be a team that everyone has their eyes on, especially after the recruitment of some Super League talent including Greg Burke and the addition of winger Andrew Bullman from rivals Whitehaven. A perfect pre-season with a thumping of North Wales and even a win over Wigan suggests they can slip into the playoffs again.
5th: Toulouse Olympique – 4/1
The side that have just dropped from Super League opened the off-season up as joint favourites alongside Featherstone at 7/4 but have since drifted to 4/1 and that’s consequent to talks of financial worries and a squad of just 19 players. They obviously still have plenty of quality but not to the level it did in their Super League campaign. A dual registration deal with Catalans will help but with no pre-season form to go on they make the playoffs in this list tentatively, more based on reputation over anything else.
4th: Keighley Cougars – 14/1
The team everyone is anticipating coming to their ground this season so that they can either admire or give some stick to the main man Luke Gale. As crazy as it seems to place them here it’s the exact finishing position that Barrow achieved as Championship new-boys last season and this Keighley squad is arguably better. The addition of Ben Crooks, who is an elite outside back at this level, also speaks volumes to their intent but it will all depend on how well they gel together with the vast majority of the squad that helped the Cougars gain promotion still in place and raring to go in the second tier.
3rd: Halifax Panthers – 12/1
Halifax look set to register the same finish as they did in 2022 and it’ll be an accomplishment again to for them. With just one pre-season game to go on, a 28-16 loss to Wakefield, it’s hard to gauge where they’re at but retaining Lachlan Walmsley, who registered 28 tries last year, was arguably their best bit of business alongside adding Italian World Cup star Jake Maizen to pair on the other wing. Expect high-scoring games from this Panthers side with the loss of Joe Arundel and Brad Knowles denting their defence.
2nd: Bradford Bulls – 14/1
Potentially a major overreaction but the acquisition of Jack Walker for this Bulls team is one that can make them legitimate title contenders. Having put in a disappointing 2022 campaign where they finished ninth, major changes were needed and that’s what has happened. This is Mark Dunning’s first full season with the side and he’s rung the changes bringing in the likes of Walker and the aforementioned Arundel and Knowles. A whole host of Huddersfield Giants have made their way to Odsal as well and the addition of PNG international Keven Appo is another huge one. Pre-season has seen ups and downs results wise but this is a team on paper that can beat anyone, with vast Super League experience.
1st: Featherstone Rovers – 10/11
To nobody’s surprise Rovers top the table and the bookies clearly have an inkling as they’ve hammered the price in from 7/4 to 10/11 – and who can blame them when you look at the squad that’s been put together and the pre-season they’ve got under their belt. Facing three Super League oppositions, they were 40 minutes away from a perfect pre-season before Wakefield flexed their muscles with the 28-0 win over Hull KR looking seriously impressive. They haven’t recruited a Walker or a Gale but they’ve added five or six quality starters and a further handful of players that can push the squad depth and strength up there. Their game against Keighley at Cougar Park on Monday will tell us more but this is Featherstone’s best chance at Super League in a long long time, and in Sean Long they have a coach determined to prove himself.
** All odds are taken from Sky Bet – Grand Final Outright market **