It will have been 125 days since the 2016 season ended for the championship but this weekend it kicks off the return of Rugby League as Toulouse host Batley down in the South of France on Saturday afternoon. Toulouse are one of two promoted clubs in the championship this season as are the Rochdale Hornets who replace both West Cumbrian sides Whitehaven & Workington who finished in the bottom two in 2016.

This 2017 season sees the inclusion of six former Super League teams in the division which shows what a competitive division the second tier is becoming and that relegated Hull KR should not be expecting promotion straight away. Ask Bradford about that one. All 12 clubs will have different aims in this 2017 championship season as it begins this weekend.

Batley Bulldogs 

2016 position – 3rd

The Bulldogs were the surprise package of 2016 as their qualified for the middle eight’s and the chance for promotion to Super League and while the Bulldogs aren’t aiming for the Super League just yet they off-season signings will help compete for a middle eight’s place once again. They may have lost head coach John Kear and influential prop Keegan Hirst to Super League side Wakefield Trinity but off-season recruits include new head coach former Leeds and Bradford player Matt Diskin and include strong running forward Joel Farrell from rivals Dewsbury Rams.

Maybe more importantly for Batley is they have kept the spine of their team. A well drilled half back partnership between Dom Brambani and Cain Southernwood can devastate teams at times especially when the famous “Batley slope” at Mount Pleasant comes in to play, include this with a forward pack that includes prop Alex Rowe and goal kicking loose forward Pat Walker the future looks bright for the Bulldogs who will be looking to qualify for the middle eights once again and show they can tussle with the big boys.

Bradford Bulls 

2016 position – 5th (Liquidated post-season)

The most talked about club during the off-season has been Bradford with their off the field problems which has been rumbling on for the last several seasons caught up with them and seen the club liquidated at the start of the year. It looked a big ask for the Bulls to be apart of this years championship with only a full month from being liquidated to the new championship started but a lot of hard work has got them in a position to be able take their place in the division.

New head coach Geoff Toovey is a former Manly player and coach with nearly 350 games at the club as a player and head coach. He will be looking to steady the ship and get the Bulls competing again back on the field. One man he will be looking for to step forward and help him will be captain Leon Pryce who is back at the club he made his first team debut at back in 1998. Pryce now 35 will be a lead figure both on and off the pitch for the Bulls as they try to put their troubles behind them and start their journey towards being one of the top dogs in Rugby Legaue once again.

Dewsbury Rams

2016 position – 8th 

The Rams will be looking to move forward after finishing 8th in the 2016 season. The rams were never in much danger of facing relegation into League 1 but will be hoping for a season of challenging the top 4 positions and chance of reaching the middle eights. Head coach Glen Morrison has been at the Rams since 2013 and has attracted interest from a number of other clubs while at Dewsbury but has remained loyal to the club. A number of mainstay players have left the Rams during the off-season including second rower Joel Farrell who has made the short trip to Batley, Shane Grady who left to go Halifax and Karl Pryce who has retired.

That shouldn’t hamper any challenge though after signing Robbie Ward the ex-leeds hooker from Featherstone to partner Tom Hemingway in the number 9 position, that impressive partnership at the bottom of the spine is backed up with an impressive and experienced half back pairing of Andy Kain & Paul Sykes. Josh Guzdek is an exciting full back to complete the spine for the Rams. Forwards Tony Tonks and Mitch Stringer are props feared in the division and should help the Tetley’s stadium become a fortress.

Featherstone Rovers

2016 position – 4th 

Jon Sharp has made a number of impressive signings to help maintain Fev’s position in the top 4 and a place in the middle eight’s. Despite losing all seven games in the Super league race Rovers will have seen 2016 as a success and be looking to once again have a push for a place in the top division.

Experience campaigners like Ian Hardman, Kyle Briggs and new captain Misi Taulapapa have been joined by Richard Moore, Keal Carlile and Frankie Mariano who have all joined the club in the off-season. Once again another side with an exciting spine with Anthony Thackeray joined by Briggs in the half back positions. Hardman at full back with Carlile at hooker which should see them once again challenge in a ever strengthening Championship.

Halifax

2016 position – 6th 

After reaching the middle eight qualifiers in 2015, Richard Marshall and his men will have been dissapointed to miss out in 2016 and will be looking to improve on their 6th place and their two victories in the final ten games. Despite the shaky ending to their 2016 campaign Richard Marshall has once again put his trust in his squad and not signed big in the off-season. But with players with Steve Tyrer, Scott Murrell, Gaz Moore on the books its hard not to put your trust in the experienced campaigners.

Shane Grady will be a useful addition to Fax squad having impressed at Dewsbury for several seasons and looks like he will join an experienced pack including the likes of Simon Grix, Adam Tangata and Mitch Cahalane among others.  Fax haven’t played in Super League since 2003 but will be hoping they can at least challenge to reach SL once again in 2017.

Hull Kingston Rovers 

2016 position – 11th (Super League, relegated in qualifiers) 

If asked this time last year will Tim Sheens be coaching in the second tier of British RL next season ? The answer will have a massive no!! But here we are twelve months later and Tim Sheens has the task of bouncing back into the promised land at first attempt. Sheens was announced as the Rovers coach back in September and has seen a overhaul of the squad with crowd favourites such as Albert Kelly and Josh Mantellato leave the club. Kelly to rivals Hull FC.

KR lost their Super League place in the most dramatic circumstances with an extra time defeat to Salford in the Million pound game after leading with two minutes to go. Salford scored two tries to level the scores and a Gareth O’Brien monster drop goal sealed KR’s relegation.

Sheens have brought in experienced players including Nick Scruton and Danny Addy as well as exciting players such as Jordan Abdull on loan from neighbours Hull and full back Adam Quinlan the ex-St Helens full back. This squad will have pressure from all in the division and the terraces to bounce back at the first attempt.

London Broncos 

2016 Position – 2nd

The Broncos will be hoping for one step better in 2017 and top the championship ladder and hoping they can re-join Super League after what would be a three year absence. The 2017 Broncos could be one of the strongest squads they have had in or out of Super League. Signings of Jarrod Sammut, Dalton Grant, Kieran Dixon and Adrian Purtell shows Andrew Henderson’s intentions of getting the London club back in Super league.

They seemed to have found a settled home in Ealing and despite suffering a few home defeat last year it really suits the Broncos style of play. London won 3 of their seven games in the middle eights last season including victories over Super League Salford away from home. Andrew Henderson will be hoping for a step further and at least qualifying for the Million Pound game.

Oldham Roughyeds

2016 position – 10th 

Oldham were one of the two promoted sides in 2016 and they achieved their objective. Survive. The Yeds secured survival during the Championship Shield with victory over Whitehaven which sealed the Cumbrian’s relegation on an emotional day at Bower Field. They will be looking to consolidate their position this season and challenge the established championship clubs while causing an upset along the way.

To do this they have signed half back Scott Leatherbarrow from London and forward Ben Davies from relegated Whitehaven. They will be accompanied with four from the Sheffield club. They have lost Lewis Palfrey to rivals and promoted Rochdale and the experienced Gary Middlehurts too but an experienced squad which coach Scott Naylor will be looking to push and challenge for the Championship shield.

Rochdale Hornets

2016 position – 2nd (League 1, Promoted via League 1 promotion final) 

The Hornets “stung” Toulouse who had previously been unbeaten in League 1 to secure their promotion to the Championship. Despite the loss of three influential players to Whitehaven, the Hornets have signed half back Lewis palfrey from Oldham and strengthened the squad with signings of experienced Rob Massam, Gary Middlehurst and Miles Greenwood.

Alan Kilshaw will be happy with pre-season despite two defeats in three games. These two defeats against Super League oppposition in Salford and Warrington. The defeat against Warrington came in the final seconds with the Wolves putting an experienced side out. This shows a Rochdale side which is ready to compete in the 2017 Championship and not just make up the numbers.

Sheffield Eagles 

2016 position – 7th 

The Eagles 2016 was a disaster. After a 2015 which saw them qualify for the middle eights and decide to go full time for the 2016 season. This decision would see them have an awful 2016 which nearly seen them not complete the season and they were close to nearly going out of business. But they were saved and coach Mark Aston will be hoping for a better 2017 on and off the field.

Despite the loss of influential mainstays including QLT, Michael Knowles and Cory Aston to pastures new, the signings of Kyle Trout, Sam Scott and Dane Chisholm will bolster their playing squad who have gone back to part-time for 2017 are exciting ones for the Eagles and hoping they can re-find their form of 2015 and challenge for the middle eights once again.

Swinton Lions 

2016 position – 9th 

Many tipped John Duffy’s Swinton for relegation in 2016 but they defied the tipsters and survived before the final day of the season, but now they will be looking to consolidate that position and have strengthened their squad with signings of Jack Murphy, Grant Gore, Matt Sarsfield among others to try and replace retired Stuart Littler, Dan Fleming and Matty Beharrell.

The Lions have had an unbeaten pre-season against Oldham, North Wales and Wigan which will only improve the confidence of the squad as they now look at the challenge ahead to start establishing themselves as a championship club for 2017 and beyond.

Toulouse Olympique 

2016 position – 1st (League 1, Promoted via League 1 play-offs) 

Toulouse went the entire League 1 regular season unbeaten and despite slipping up in the promotion final in against Rochdale they entered the play-offs and promoted after beating Barrow in the play-off final.

Toulouse have kept the majority of their squad that dominated League 1 last season with full back Mark Kierallah, Greg White and Kane Bentley been players who stand out. Signings have been minimal in fact only 1 in Stan Robin from fellow french side Catalans.

The French side have only had one pre-season game which was a victory over a full strength Catalans side. Olympique are challenging for Super League and will be hoping this season will be a springboard for that.