So, we’ve made it. It’s the end of the off-season and start of the ‘New Era’ in Championship rugby league. I will be previewing the weekend’s games for Nothing But League this season, hopefully giving you an insight into what to expect. Let’s get started!

Friday 13th February at 8:00pm: Dewsbury Rams v Sheffield Eagles – The Championship season of 2015 will be ushered in at the Tetley’s Stadium.  Glenn Morrison’s Dewsbury Rams host Mark Aston’s Sheffield Eagles in what should be an enthralling clash. Signings are in abundance at both clubs in 2015, and quality signings at that. Matty Wildie and Dalton Grant are just two of the ten signings made for the new season by Glenn Morrison. Wildie played a big part in Doncaster’s derby day victory over Sheffield at Owlerton Stadium in 2014, the utility man will be a vital cog wherever he plays in the Rams team. If he plays in the halves, a potentially lethal partnership with Anthony Thackeray awaits. The Rams have played a good number of preseason games, wins against Super League side Salford Red Devils and fellow Championship rivals London Broncos stand out. However, a blow from preseason is the suspension of Zach Johnson. The former Swinton Lions prop forward is suspended for four games due to being sent off in a warmup match against Newcastle Thunder. 

Sheffield Eagles have bolstered their forward pack with the acquisitions of Jamie Langley and Tony Tonks, two majorly experienced players who will really make the steel city side a force to be reckoned with. Blake South replaces the retired Andrew Henderson, South will be sharing the hooking roles with Eagles regular James Davey. No pre-season games were scheduled for the Eagles during the winter break, they’re known for their slow starts so whether or not their undercooked nature comes back for the first game remains to be seen.

Prediction – Sheffield by 7

Sunday 15th February at 3:00pm: Batley Bulldogs v Workington Town – An interesting first game for both teams as Batley and Workington both showed glimpses of class in a turbulent 2014 campaign. The Bulldogs have had a great preseason, losing one game to the North Wales Crusaders and winning the rest. Featherstone Rovers, Dewsbury Rams and a Heavy Woollen Select side have all been defeated by the Mount Pleasant side. The core of the 2014 team has been retained with no-nonsense front-rowers Adam Gledhill and Alex Rowe epitomising what a strong side Batley have. New signings include Whitehaven trio Shaun Ainscough, Cain Southernwood and Lee Mitchell. John Kear has been waxing lyrical about this pre-season being the best he’s seen at Batley, will the good preparation pay off with an opening day victory against Workington?

Workington Town have completed a full pre-season under the stewardship of Phil Veivers, the man who masterminded their superb mid-season run to Championship consolidation last year. Similar to Batley, departures out of the club haven’t been as damaging due to the good dealings in the player market. Coach Veivers has added to his squad with some adept acquisitions. These include two players from Down Under, Latu Fifita, brother of Andrew, from Queensland Cup side Northern Pride as well as Kurt Horton from Mount Pritchard Mounties. Signings from the amateur game have been a common sight with Cumbrian clubs this off-season and Workington are no different. The pick of their amateur signings comes in the shape of Cumbria Academy star Theerapol Ritson. Pre-season has gone swimmingly for Town with two wins from as many matches. Victories for the side from the Zebra Claims Stadium came against neighbours Whitehaven RLFC and Wigan Warriors Reserves.

Prediction – Batley by 10

Sunday 15th February at 3:00pm: Whitehaven RLFC v Halifax RLFC – A tough trip for Halifax in their first league game under Richard Marshall. Whitehaven always pose a threat when at home, and I’m sure that’ll be no different this year.  From the 14 new signings Haven have completed, two of the most talented come from differing parts of the world. Widnes Vikings second-rower Dave Allen and PNG Hunters half-back Dion Aiye add more spark and ball-playing skill to the Cumbrian outfit. Similar to Workington, Steve Deakin has delved into the amateur player market. Deakin swooped to sign BARLA international John Paul Brocklebank from Egremont Rangers in November. Brocklebank can play in either of the stand-off or loose forward positions. Pre-season hasn’t gone to plan on the pitch for The Recre based side after losses to Barrow and Workington. A friendly against Newcastle Thunder had to be cancelled due to the number of injuries in the Whitehaven squad.

Brett Seymour will take charge of Whitehaven’s first match after Deakin left the club due to family reasons.

Halifax have undergone their first pre-season with Richard Marshall as coach. Marshall has only had a say in a few signings due to former coach Karl Harrison signing the players he wanted for the 2015 season before leaving the club after a disappointing end to a potentially wealthy 2014 season. The ten new signings bring a lot of class to the squad, there’s a nice mix of youth and experience at Halifax in 2015. The experience is brought to the fore with the acquisition of prop forward Richard Moore and explosive full-back Miles Greenwood. Moore had a good period at Hunslet Hawks at the end of 2014, while Greenwood performed at a high standard for Batley. From the friendly games that have been played, Halifax have tested themselves against Super league opposition. A win against Hull KR at the KC Lightstream Stadium was a good start to life under coach Marshall, but a loss to a full-strength Huddersfield Giants side at The Shay was to be expected. 

Prediction – Halifax by 16

Sunday 15th February at 3:00pm: London Broncos v Doncaster RLFC – The first ever second tier rugby league match to be played at The Hive. The Broncos start out in the Championship with a clean slate, a real chance to build something special. Coach Joey Grima has brought in some overseas talent, along with some seasoned professionals on these shores. Wes Naiqama has joined the Broncos from Penrith Panthers in the NRL, another experienced player on the Broncos books is Richie Mathers who’s arrived from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. Matty Garside has also signed for the capital club. Garside makes the switch from Sheffield, and the now former Eagle brings Championship knowledge to a squad not familiar with the division.  The Broncos have played three pre-season games, resulting in one win and two losses. The triumph came against neighbours London Skolars, the losses against Catalan Dragons and Dewsbury Rams.

Doncaster start the Kingstone Press Championship campaign after an eye-opening pre-season where some young signings have been trying to play their way into match squad contention. The Dons completed a triple signing from Sheffield Eagles in the off-season, young talents Alex Palmer, Tom Holt and Mitchell Vincent made the short trip to the other dressing room at the Keepmoat Stadium. A more experienced signing is that of Danny Cowling from Halifax, a former fans favourite at Doncaster. Cowling has always had potential to be a barnstorming centre, now is his chance to really spark into life. Pre-season hasn’t brought any victories for Paul Cooke’s side, they wont be getting too downhearted though seen as there was no league points on offer. The losses came against Hull FC, Castleford Tigers, Leeds Rhinos and Hunslet Hawks.

Prediction – London by 22

Sunday 15th February at 3:00pm: Leigh Centurions v Bradford Bulls – Labelled the tie of the round, reigning Championship champions Leigh Centurions host recently relegated Bradford Bulls. Two of the strongest sides in the division will come head to head in what should be a brutal matchup. Leigh have had a good pre-season, both on and off the field. Departures out of the club have gone unnoticed due to the sheer enormity of the signings that have come in. Additions to the Centurions of 2014 include Parramatta, and NRL, cult hero Fuifui Moimoi and Ben Reynolds from Castleford Tigers. Leigh have played four pre-season matches and have been triumphant in all. They won the ‘Battle of the Borough’ against Wigan before beating North Wales Crusaders, Keighley Cougars and Oldham.

Bradford Bulls are adapting to life as a Championship outfit with a rather fresh-faced squad. 15 new signings have been brought in for the upcoming season, James Lowes certainly has a broad squad to choose from. Out of the signings, there’s experience in top tier rugby within most of them whether it be in Australia or England. Etu Uaisele played for Penrith and Parramatta in the NRL before trying his luck in England. A rough patch with Featherstone was forgotten about by Uaisele as he looked revitalised during a loan spell at Sheffield in mid-2014. Other new Bradford recruits to look out for are Epalahame Lauaki, who’s arrived at the Provident Stadium from Manly Sea Eagles, and former Salford Red Devils full-back Jake Mullaney.  Bradford have tested themselves in pre-season against two Super League clubs. The Bulls were defeated by Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos in Jamie Peacock’s testimonial match. 

Prediction – Leigh by 12.

Monday 16th February at 7:30pm: Featherstone Rovers v Hunslet Hawks – Due to problems with the pitch at the Big Fellas Stadium, this game will take place at the Rapid Solicitors Stadium in Wakefield. Featherstone come into the new season with confidence after their second place finish in last season’s Championship. The Rovers have used their prize money wisely and have really made other teams stand up and take notice of their transfer dealings. Former Warrington Wolves pair Garreth Carvell and Paul Wood are reunited at Post Office Road in 2015, Wood joins ‘Fev’ from the Wolves while Carvell has made the switch across West Yorkshire from Castleford. Paul Sykes is another experienced head who will be donning a Rovers shirt in 2015, the utility man arrives at Rovers after two permanent seasons at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. Pre-season for Featherstone included five matches against two Super League sides, one Championship team, a League 1 outfit as well as an amateur side. Andy Hay’s men were defeated by Batley, Wakefield and Castleford but managed two wins from their last couple of warmup games, beating York City Knights and amateurs Lock Lane RLFC.

Hunslet Hawks will ply their trade in the Championship this season after a highly dramatic playoff final against Oldham last season. With promotion comes the need to improve the playing squad, Barry Eaton has done exactly that. The Hawks look a rather good outfit going into their first game, with League 1 talent mixed in with a few Championship stalwarts. League 1 talent comes in the shape of London Skolars centre Mufaro Mvududu and Oldham winger Mo Agoro. Championship experience will be key for the Hawks in 2015, they have that experience in key positions with hooker George Flanagan plus half-backs Andy Kain and Simon Brown. The Hawks were greeted with three pre-season games to whet their supporters appetite, losses came against Salford and Leeds before the South Leeds Stadium side beat Doncaster. Hunslet were scheduled to face Rochdale on February 8th but the game was called off due to a frozen pitch. 

Prediction – Rovers by 14

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the Kingstone Press Championship Round 1 Preview. If I do get my predictions wrong, feel free to tweet me @DanFowler97 to make sure I don’t get away with it!