2015 Championship Preview

With the ‘New Era’ just over a month away, it’s time for the predictions and this year is as mind-boggling as ever. The three full-time teams, Bradford Bulls, Leigh Centurions and London Broncos, all stand out as outfits that will occupy the top three spots unless one slips up dramatically. The team who will finish fourth is anybody’s guess. Featherstone Rovers, Sheffield Eagles, Halifax RLFC and Dewsbury Rams have all delved deep into the transfer market and raised many eyebrows with the players they’ve signed. A chance to have a shot at the Super League clubs is what the Championship clubs have been screaming for, finally they have that opportunity. The race for the top 4 is intriguing but who will face the drop down to League One? Hunslet Hawks will be wanting to survive after their dramatic promotion whilst Batley Bulldogs will be fancying a more calm season compared to the roller coaster of 2014. This is the season where the New Era takes flight, a season where every minute matters.   After much deliberation, and numerous changes of prediction, this is how I think the table will look when the division splits up for the ‘Super 8’s’

1st – Leigh Centurions: Three T’s; tried, tested and triumphant. Paul Rowley’s Centurions are adapting to life as a full-time outfit, and near to all of the squad from last season have been retained and have only been strengthened through signings. The half-back pairing of Martin Ridyard and Ryan Brierley really took off last year and will probably do the same in 2015. The uncompromising forward pack which starred Jamie Acton and Sam Barlow to name just two has been added to with the addition of Fuifui Moimoi, the Parramatta Eels cult hero, and Richard Beaumont from St Helens. Kurt Haggerty has made his move to Leigh a permanent one, after being on loan at the Centurions last season. Other notable signings include centre Greg Worthington from Featherstone and utility back Ben Reynolds from Castleford. Reynolds was joint Championship One player of the year in 2014, sharing the accolade with fellow York loanee James Saltonstall. With no hookers being added to the squad, all the other Championship clubs know what they’ll be up against in that department. The dynamic duo of Bob Beswick and Sean Penkywicz have rattled teams for years on end, 2015 will certainly be no different. With a feel good factor that will still be spurring around the Leigh club, I’m certainly expecting the Centurions to step up to the mark in 2015. They’ll have to be quick off the mark, mainly because their first match of the season is against a team I predict will come second

2nd – Bradford Bulls: A giant that fell to sleep and has arrived in a different world. Bradford Bulls will be playing their rugby in the second tier in 2015 after their fall from grace last season. Points deductions look to be a thing of the past as Marc Green stabilised the Bradford ship in mid-2014, and threw Francis Cummins off the same ship soon after. Fan favourite Jimmy Lowes took over and they provided some scalps in their final season in Super League. A famous win over Leeds Rhinos at Headingley will certainly live long in the memory for Bulls fans, they’ll want to be facing their old enemy again, sooner rather than later. With Bradford being one of the biggest names in British rugby for quite some time, coach Lowes knows that a prolonged stay in the Championship will not do. A statement of intent has already been signalled, with 15 new signings being welcomed into the Provident Stadium, meaning team cohesion and bonding will certainly be on the pre-season schedule. Experience is in abundance as ex NRL players Etu Uaisele and Jake Mullaney have been signed up, along with Dan Fleming, Paul Clough and Jean Phillipe-Baile who have played Super League in the past. The retainment of players such as Adrian Purtell, Lee Gaskell and captain Chev Walker is vital to success in the coming season. Getting the squad on the same wave length will be a challenge for Lowes and his back room staff, but the class, experience and raw talent that is on show at the Bulls will surely see them contest the struggling Super League sides.

3rd – London Broncos: No longer struggling in the top tier after a good number of seasons with disappointment, the Broncos will be hoping for stability more than anything in the coming season. With Joey Grima at the helm and Andrew Henderson as his assistant, London are better placed now for a breakthrough year than ever before. With 16 new signings announced, Grima has now got who he wants at the club and can work on getting the capital club back to the top tier. Similar to Bradford, London have delved into the transfer market to gain experience to join what was a youthful outfit. Richard Mathers is a Super League Grand Final winner, a very handy signing for the Broncos. Wes Naiqama and Josh Cordoba bring a barrel load of NRL experience to the fore. Championship rugby may be a shock to some of the Broncos squad but some of the new signings are quite well known to it. Ben Hellewell, Luke Adamson and Matty Garside all join Grima’s side from Championship teams. The experience that has been talked about will be very useful to great young players such as Joe Keyes, Iliess Macani and Toby Everett. The talent of these players can not be questioned, 2015 will be a year where the young Broncos learn a lot, and improve on their respective games. Obviously, the one to watch out of the youngsters will be Joe Keyes. A famous hat-trick against Leeds Rhinos, albeit under strength, last season shows his capabilities. The good showing against the Australian Schoolboys also underlines what Keyes has in his locker, expect the young stand-off, who can also play centre, to improve rapidly and play a key part in the Broncos challenge for promotion.

4th – Featherstone Rovers: Featherstone have been up and around the top of the Championship for the past few seasons, but this is the season where they really need to show what they’re worth. With the top 3 spots more than likely accompanied by the full-time sides, 4th place is a free-for-all between the Championship stalwarts. For me, anybody out of Featherstone, Sheffield, Halifax or Dewsbury could take 4th spot but I think the Post Office Road side will nick it. But my thoughts may change if recent signings Ryan Verlinden and Reni Maitua do not get the chance to come over here. Verlinden is in need of an Irish passport whilst Maitua has applied for a visa. Verlinden and Maitua have both initially signed on two year deals, but the complications with passport/visas is still ongoing at time of writing. The duo would bring power and class to Post Office Road, and add to a very strong forward pack. Other signings include young Leeds Rhinos quartet Thomas Minns, Jordan Baldwinson, Alex Foster and Mason Tonks.  Baldwinson, Tonks and Foster all play in the forwards whilst Minns is a centre. Paul Wood has also recently signed for Featherstone. The prop forward from Warrington reportedly fell out with back room staff at the Wolves so a switch to West Yorkshire was his best option. Featherstone will be grateful that they’ve now finally got a leader in the forwards, something that’s been missing since club legend Stuart Dickens left.  Acquisitions from Down Under include swift hooker Sam Irwin from Gold Coast Titans and utility back Jy Hitchcox from Wests Tigers. The signings will only add to the power that Featherstone already have in the ranks. Expect a great season from Ireland international James Mendieka, especially after injury cut short his first season at Post Office Road. Rovers have played one pre-season game at time of writing, a 18-0 loss to Castleford Tigers. Although Andy Hay’s men didn’t get a point on the board against Castleford, they certainly showed signs of class which will have left fans and players optimistic for the season ahead.

5th – Sheffield Eagles: The 2012 and 2013 Championship Champions had a disappointing season in 2014, life at Owlerton didn’t treat the Eagles well. A fifth place finish was something of a result for Sheffield, who narrowly missed out on a fourth consecutive Grand Final appearance as they went down 21-12 to Featherstone. Losses to the 2014 squad have been somewhat shadowed by some very good business from Mark Aston in the transfer market. Unsung hero Peter Green retired after the 2014 season, as did Andrew Henderson who moved down south to become assistant to Joey Grima at London. Matty Garside followed Henderson to Broncos whilst Shaun Squires and Tom Lillycrop both moved to Batley Bulldogs. But the gains to the squad have impressed fans, some more than others. A return to the Eagles for Rob Worrincy raised questions, a pantomime villain after his departure to Halifax for the 2009 season. Prop forwards Tony Tonks and Steve Thorpe add to the Eagles pack, they join from Halifax and Easts Tigers respectively. The loss of Henderson has been covered with the arrival of Blake South from North Sydney Bears. But the marquee signing for Sheffield is that of Jamie Langley. The loose forward has had a remarkable career in the top flight, Langley signed a one-year deal with Mark Aston’s side and has joined the coaching staff too. The Eagles, unlike many of their Championship counterparts, have no pre-season matches planned. Sheffield will certainly be vying for that fourth spot, to have a shot at Super League opposition in a league format is something that everybody associated with the Eagles have been waiting for since 1999.

6th – Dewsbury Rams: Since taking over at Dewsbury in 2013, Glenn Morrison has seen big improvements on the field. A sixth place finish last season, along with a playoff semi-final must have pleased everyone at the West Yorkshire club. With the players that have been brought in for the 2015 season, Morrison’s Rams may yet shock a few more people. High calibre players such as Ryan Fieldhouse and Matty Wildie stand out in their transfer dealings as the Rams search to make the top 4 and have a challenge against the Super League sides. Zach Johnson and Josh Barlow will toughen up the already boisterous Dewsbury pack, with no-nonsense Makali Aizue summing up that strength. With a squad of 30 players, and the addition of a reserve team, strength in depth will certainly be a factor to any success at the Tetley’s Stadium this season. Even though the Rams have delved into the transfer market, quality was already on show in Dewsbury during 2014, so much so that centre Shane Grady beat off great opposition to claim a spot in the Championship Dream Team. Grady may find himself paired with winger Dale Morton again this season, but on the other flank there’s a different duo compared to last season. Sam Wood has made his move to Dewsbury a permanent one, and winger Dalton Grant has left relegated Barrow to join up with the Rams. With an array of impressive signings, the Rams are many people’s dark horses for 2015 and I wouldn’t be shocked if Morrison’s men upset the applecart.

7th – Halifax RLFC: With a new coach at the helm, Halifax fans will be looking forward to a clean slate under the stewardship of Richard Marshall. Despite one Northern Rail Cup triumph, Karl Harrison never really wowed the fans with his team’s performances so a change of coach was welcomed at The Shay. Marlon Billy has been appointed as Marshall’s assistant for 2015 which no Halifax fan can have any qualms about. If the team put in the same kind of performances as Billy did in his career, they’ll be on to something good. The recruitment has been rather exciting for Fax, with Cook Island prop forward Adam Tangata making the move to West Yorkshire from New South Wales Cup side Mounties RLFC. Following Tangata from the Mounties to Halifax are Mitch Calahane and Matt Place, the former a prop forward and the latter a half-back. A more familiar face to the Halifax fans is that of winger Alex Brown who makes the move from Leigh Centurions. Brown played a big part in Batley Bulldogs’ Championship survival last season, he’ll be wanting to make the same sort of impact under Marshall at Fax. Halifax have also gone down the much maligned route of dual registration, with Hull KR. The club, for the last few years, have been keen to dismiss any use of dual-registration but Chris Chester and Richard Marshall struck up a deal and this agreement will be in process during 2015.  Despite the negativity of dual-registration, Halifax have put a very competitive squad together which will stand them in good stead for the season. Can the West Yorkshire side challenge for the top four in Richard Marshall’s first year in charge? It will be interesting to see.

8th – Batley Bulldogs: John Kear’s side are the first Championship team to get a win on the board in pre-season. An 18-16 win against local rivals Dewsbury at a cold Fox’s Biscuits Stadium was the perfect start to preparation for the 2015 season. Two brilliant tries from Johnny Campbell were the highlights of the match, as the winger looked to be raring to go for the new season. Campbell missed the whole of last season due to being banned after betting on matches he was involved in. The club have stuck by his side and he’ll be wanting to reward them for their loyalty. New signings at Batley include Sheffield duo Tom Lillycrop and Shaun Squires, Whitehaven trio Cain Southernwood, Lee Mitchell and Shaun Ainscough. Former Shaw Cross Sharks star Squires partnered Campbell down the left side in the Boxing Day clash. Brad Hey and Brad Day rounded off the signings from fellow professional clubs, both youngsters arriving from Castleford Tigers. A surprise signing for Batley is that of Tom Thackray who impressed during his trial game against Dewsbury. Thackray will take hope from his year-long contract seen as the Bulldogs picked up Alex Walmsley in exactly the same way at the start of 2012. Batley have one of the best coaches in the league under John Kear, the former Wakefield and Hull FC boss will certainly be looking to cause a few customary upsets during the season. With the three full-time clubs there to be shot at, they wont find many places tougher to go to than Mount Pleasant especially as Kear prides himself on his teams making the home ground a fortress.

9th – Workington Town: Trips up to Cumbria are known to be hard work, 2015 will be no different as Workington look to put right what they did wrong last season. A terrific mid-season purple patch in 2014 moved Town safely away from the relegation zone. Phil Veivers masterminded the winning streak and the Aussie coach will be wanting to make further strides forward as the gate to promotion has been opened. The trouble with Cumbrian sides is that they’re notoriously bad travellers and wins away from home are few and far between. However, signings like overseas pair Latu Fifita and Perry Whitely give Workington hope that they will not let teams have it their own way in 2015. Jack Murphy is also a permanent fixture in the Town squad after signing a two-year deal from Wigan in October 2014. The remaining three signings (correct at time of writing) are all from the local area with Scott Akehurst and Sam Forrester joining from Maryport RLFC and Theerapol Ritson being picked up from the Cumbria Academy. Will the youngsters signed from around Cumbria come up with the goods when they get the chance? Well, Ritson put in a tidy performance for Cumbria against the touring Australian Schoolboys plus Forrester and Akehurst are held in high regard at Maryport. Add these three, plus the two overseas additions to the squad that finished 7th last season and Veivers has a decent crop to pick from. Will they finish higher than my predicted 9th? The Cumbrians are made of strong stuff, and if they get on a decent run similar to last season, then I may be made to eat my own words come September time.

10th – Doncaster RLFC: Paul Cooke’s Doncaster side finished in a credible 4th position in the league last season, as well as being the only team to beat Leigh Centurions in the Championship. A season where Doncaster could have easily snatched the second spot away from Featherstone. With a new season on the way and a number of departures, many are tipping Doncaster to not do as well this season. The amount of youngsters signed by Paul Cooke is a big statement of the plan he’s got for the future at Doncaster. Mitchell Vincent, Tom Holt and Alex Palmer have all switched from Sheffield to Doncaster, as well as Josh Kittrick and Sam Doherty who have formerly played at Wakefield Wildcats, with Doherty having a spell in Australia. With the youth signed, experience has also come in the shape of Steve Snitch, who had a good time at Doncaster in 2014. Danny Cowling and Tom Carr have both signed from fellow Championship clubs, but Carr has had his injury problems and is out for up to six months after a training injury. Cooke has put his faith in the dual-registration system, continuing the club’s partnership with Super League side Hull FC. It’s a tricky thing to be delving into but Cooke knows what’s right for the club and will have the full backing of chief executive Carl Hall. Can the Dons shock the doubters once again, and pull off another good season? Or will my prediction of 10th be somewhere around where they’ll finish?

11th – Whitehaven RLFC: Whitehaven are with a new coach for the 2015 season. Days after Haven’s safety was confirmed due to an empathic last-day win over Swinton, Dave Woods left the club after being told his commitments were no longer needed. The board of directors at the Recre soon swooped for Steve Deakin’s services, the former Catalans Dragons coach will be needing to guide the Cumbrians to safety in his first season in charge. Whilst suffering from the losses of key players such as Lee Mitchell, Tom Carr, Shaun Ainscough and Cain Southernwood, Deakin has signed an array of players he thinks can bring the club to safety in the second tier. Three amateur signings in the shape of Connor Holliday from Kells plus the highly rated John Paul-Brocklebank and Stephen Fox from Egremont gives the Haven side some Cumbrian passion. A season long loan deal for Jordan Hand from St Helens is a very nifty buy from Deakin, Hand is a very talented prospect at Saints. Dave Allen from Widnes is one heck of a buy also, Allen has a lot of Super League experience which will only help Haven in the coming season. Experienced Hunslet duo Thomas and James Coyle have also made the switch to the Recre. Deakin’s extensive French knowledge must have helped former Haven player Said Tamghart come back to the Recre for 2015, from Avignon Bisons.   The Recreation Ground is certainly a very tough place to visit, whether you’re full-time or not, if Haven are to survive in the league then their home form is top priority. Backs Craig Calvert and Jesse Joe Parker are the type of players that score tries for fun when they’re on their game, the dynamic duo will be the danger men for opposition teams, and rightly so. Calvert and Parker’s tries have been key to survival in the past, 2015 will be no different. New coach Deakin will be hoping to purchase a few more players to help out in squad depth before the season begins.

12th – Hunslet Hawks: Hunslet enter the Championship after one of the most dramatic promotions of all time, a golden point drop goal win against Oldham. James Coyle landed the all important drop goal. The Coyle brothers, Thomas and James, joined Whitehaven after the playoff final triumph. With the promotion came an uprise in money for the Hawks, and Barry Eaton has put that money to good use. 17 new players have joined the Hawks for the 2015 season, but they will still find life tough in the Championship. Of the 17 players bought, Jack Lee from York City Knights, George Flanagan and Andy Kain from Featherstone, and Simon Brown from Halifax RLFC stand out as the key signings for the South Leeds Stadium outfit. There’s a mix of Championship and League One acquisitions, who give the Hawks a lot of balance. Richie Barnett and Elliot Cosgrove have made the move from Keighley to York, whilst Batley duo Brad Brennan and Vinny Finigan travelled across West Yorkshire to join up with Eaton’s men. There’s been a number of losses too, including the Coyle brothers and the experienced David March and Stuart Kain. Gavin Duffy, who was a potent scorer last year, has returned to Keighley after his loan spell at Hunslet. The Hawks will be disappointed at not being able to tempt Duffy into signing on a permanent basis. A lot of people have tipped the Hawks to be languishing near the bottom of the Championship, which I agree with. This isn’t to say that the South Leeds Stadium will be an easy place to go to in 2015, the players that have signed do have potential to fight off the doubters. Can Barry Eaton’s men prove the doubters wrong and survive in the Championship?

The 2015 Kingstone Press Championship is the most eagerly anticipated of the summer era. With a vast array of talent from top to bottom, as well as the excitement of promotion to the top tier being introduced, the second tier has never been so competitive. The three full-time teams will be needing to stay on guard from first minute to last, there’ll be part-time teams waiting to shoot them down. At the bottom, there’ll be teams worrying about potential trips to Coventry or Gloucestershire and not getting the chance to get a big payday in 2016. With the season a month away, I wish all the teams the best of luck for the year ahead. I will be covering the Kingstone Press Championship for in 2015, and I’m looking forward to providing this excitement-filled league with coverage.

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