Kingstone Press Championship 2016 Preview and Predictions

Another season is slowly coming over the horizon, and what a treat we have in store. There’s now four full-time teams in the second tier of European rugby league as Sheffield Eagles have joined Leigh Centurions, Bradford Bulls and London Broncos in that bracket.

But the Championship is so intriguing that there’s numerous teams who wouldn’t look out of place in the top four. Halifax finished fourth last year before impressing everyone in the Qualifiers and they will be fighting to do the same in 2016. Outside of last year’s top four, Andrew Henderson’s Broncos have strengthened well as have Featherstone Rovers, Batley Bulldogs and Dewsbury Rams.

Up in Cumbria, Workington swooped for Jarrod Sammut on a permanent basis while Whitehaven did good business when they announced the re-signing of star man Dion Aiye. Will one of those teams make a hefty jump up the table or will both struggle?

This year’s newbies in the Championship are Oldham Roughyeds (finally!) and Swinton Lions. Both will be realistic in their ambitions for this season, survival is the goal.

Time to start this preview and predictions piece at the top of the table.

Check out the season’s draw here

Check out the top Championship buys here

Leigh Centurions (1st) 

Reni Maitua, Willie Tonga, Harrison Hansen, Cory Paterson, Dayne Weston and Rangi Chase. An expensive rugby league shopping list, that’s for sure. The departure of head coach Paul Rowley due to personal reasons will hit the Centurions hard and it’ll be interesting to see who they’ll get in to replace him. With so many high profile characters in the dressing room, Leigh will need to hire someone who has the capabilities to keep these players happy or else there may be trouble incoming. However, the class that Leigh have in their squad is second to none and it’s hard to see how they won’t finish top of the tree. If Ryan Brierley stays at Leigh, then his partnership with Rangi Chase could prove to be lethal. But what will come of Martyn Ridyard if Chase and Brierley light up the Championship? So many questions waiting to be answered. Keep your eyes on the Centurions in 2016. But let’s be honest, there’s no way you can’t.

Bradford Bulls (2nd)

They played second fiddle to the Centurions during the last regular season but ended up in the Million Pound Game. I think the Bulls will settle for the same this year, apart from one result in particular. With eight signings, five of them coming from outside of Super League, the Bulls are readying themselves for a second season in the Championship under coach James Lowes. Mitch Clark was the pick of an underwhelming bunch at Doncaster last season while Johnny Campbell gets a chance at full-time rugby after impressing at Batley. People often say ‘you have to lose one to win one’, the Bulls fans will be hoping that is the case as their side tries to regain Super League status.

Halifax (3rd)

Fax’ had a storming first season under Richard Marshall in 2015. The Shay was the place to be for expansive, exciting rugby league and it won’t be a surprise to see them replicate the same feats as last year. Also due to the fact coach Marshall has his own players in the squad now, rather than working off mostly somebody else’s. The spirit and obvious team chemistry made Halifax one of the most admirable sides in the division and their fans will be hoping for more of the same. With talented signings in the offseason, including Sam Smeaton and Will Sharp from Sheffield Eagles and Featherstone Rovers respectively, I think it’s to be expected that they reach similar heights as last year. Even though they’re starting the season with eight players out of their first team squad on the injury list, I should imagine the West Yorkshire side will hit the ground running and start as they mean to go on.

Sheffield Eagles (4th)

After a good season in 2015, when they finished in the top four and gave a good account of themselves in the Qualifiers, Mark Aston’s men have moved back to the steel city and are now a full-time team. With ten signings and just as many departures, the Eagles have taken a very uncharacteristic route by playing two preseason matches. A slow start shouldn’t be on the cards for a Sheffield side who have a good mix of youth and experience in their ranks. Despite being pressured hard by teams such as London and Featherstone, I expect the Eagles to finish in fourth place and push on to cause a stir in the middle eights.

London Broncos (5th)

It looks to be a more settled London Broncos camp going into the new season, unlike last year when coach Joey Grima left after the first few fixtures. Now the coach is Andrew Henderson, who takes charge of his first full season at the Broncos. London have moved from The Hive to Ealing Trailfinders for the year ahead and they’ve improved their squad with signings such as Jack Bussey and PNG international half-back Israel Eliab. A top four finish will excite the Broncos fans and maybe, just maybe, it’ll spark a bit of interest in the surrounding area and the crowds will increase. Because who doesn’t like to see a winning team in action? Although I’ve picked them for fifth place this year but don’t be shocked if they surge into the top four as they’ve strengthened with signings from the Championship rather than chancing all of their luck from overseas.

Featherstone Rovers (6th)

With dreadful home form costing Featherstone a shot at Qualifiers rugby in 2015, coach Jon Sharp will be hoping his new signings make a big difference as they look to make their way up the Championship table. Signings such as Misi Taulapapa and John Davies from Sheffield, along with Dewsbury duo Anthony Thackeray and Matty Wildie, make the Rovers a definite threat to the top four. There’s a good amount of young players in the Featherstone squad too. Ones to watch include Kyran Johnson and Sam Day, both players featured when the Rovers nearly upset Catalans in Perpignan last year and they should get a good run in the team this year. As the going gets tough for Featherstone, they will have to show some bottle and win the close games if they’re to reach the top four and make amends for the season just gone.

Batley Bulldogs (7th)

The Fox’s Biscuits Stadium side failed to get off the ground last year despite having a fearsome forward pack which included key players James Brown and Alex Rowe. Now, with improvements made to their back line, the Bulldogs can strive for the heights they reached in 2013 when they got to the Championship Grand Final. An impressive signing made by John Kear is that of Scotland international Dave Scott. The full-back or winger has recently won Scotland’s Player of the Year award, and his contribution will be vital to Batley in the coming months. Using the well-known slope to their advantage with the expert kicking of new acquisitions Pat Walker and Dom Brambani, the ‘Mount’ should become a feared place to visit once again. A bit of consistency instilled into the side could see them make a push for a top four finish. The Bulldogs are the dark horses of the league this year, that’s for certain.

Dewsbury Rams (8th)

Dewsbury’s 2015 season ended when they were defeated by London Broncos in the Championship Shield semi-final. It’s fair to say coach Glenn Morrison won’t be wanting a repeat of that! The most notable off season departures from the Tetley’s Stadium have gone to the same place. Playmakers Anthony Thackeray and Matty Wildie made the switch to Featherstone which left the Rams licking their wounds. But they have done some good business of their own. Matt Groat and Tony Tonks will provide the steel in the forwards while Ben Reynolds offers creativity after moving to West Yorkshire on a season long loan from Leigh. The Rams have a squad of over 30 players so the depth is not a problem, but will they have the strength to provide an assault on the top teams?

Workington Town (9th)

As previously mentioned, the signing of Jarrod Sammut will have sparked a lot of enthusiasm for Workington fans when they talk about the upcoming season. Phil Veivers has done a great job in getting the Maltese international to sign a two year contract. Also incoming is a prop forward with a point to prove. Ryan Verlinden was hyped up by Featherstone as a player who could turn their season into a good one but failed to impress. A loan spell at Doncaster proved fruitless and now the former Newtown Jets star has landed in Cumbria. Key players from 2015 have stayed put at the Zebra Claims Stadium including second-row combination Brett Phillips and Jarrad Stack, as well as winger Brett Carter. I don’t think Workington will have a problem securing Championship status for another year, just as long as their home form doesn’t go astray.

Swinton Lions (10th)

People may think this is a bit of a surprise pick in 10th place but John Duffy and his Swinton side will be wanting to prove the critics wrong by extending their stay in the second tier. It can be easy to forget that shrewd business has been made down the Championship pecking order, and Swinton are a prime example of that. Despite losing both Hawkyard brothers in the off season, coach Duffy has brought in players who have played their trade in the second tier for quite a few years. Anthony Nicholson and Stephen Nash are perfect examples of signings who will make a big difference in a survival bid. Meanwhile, fearless youngsters like Macauley Hallett and Corbyn Kilday will also be wanting to play a big part for Swinton this season. Don’t underestimate this team or they will bite you where it hurts.

Whitehaven (11th)

James Coyle’s men endured a torrid time at the start of 2015 and have looked to make sure that doesn’t happen in 2016. With 23 players signed on including the star players of Louis Jouffret and Dion Aiye they hopefully will be battling to be in contention for the Championship Shield rather than the relegation battle that they were in last season. A big season will be expected from Jessie Joe Parker and Scott McAvoy with the latter celebrating his testimonial season in 2016. Players like Dave Allen and recently capped Scotland international Sam Brooks will be main players in the pack as Haven will be looking to overtake the Cumbrian rivals Workington who they lost four consecutive competitive fixtures in 2015 and the feeling among the fans is that much change soon. (provided by Jordan Weir)

Oldham Roughyeds (12th)

Newly promoted Oldham finally made the jump up to the Championship after years of playoff heartache in League 1. Finishing top of the third tier and winning the promotional final against Keighley Cougars made sure the usual late season syndrome didn’t occur again. However, the Roughyeds soon had problems to face including their ground at Whitebank and the loss of two key players in George Tyson and Adam Neal to Sheffield. They’ve now moved out of Whitebank and gone to Stalybridge Celtic’s Bower Fold. The signings, including former Halifax man Jack Spencer as well as winger Jamel Chisholm, will add to the Oldham squad but they will have to show a lot of fight to retain their place in the Championship. What does help the Roughyeds is that they have joined a league which is known for its unpredictability. The Championship newbies will be hoping they can add to that unpredictable nature.

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