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Championships

A season of great significance GARETH WALKER casts his eye over the forthcoming Championships campaigns - which kick off on 31 January

Like so many things in rugby league, the build-up to the new Championship season has not been plain sailing; the withdrawal of Northampton and an unwieldy late change to the competitions’ junior leagues has seen to that. But despite those mis-steps, there is no doubt that the 2013 season is one of great significance, and one rich in potential.

This is a year that will see an expanded Championship of 14 teams, a revised Northern Rail Cup, and a Championship One including three exciting new clubs.

There will be more junior teams at this level than in recent years, though the late switch from the planned U19s and U23s leagues, to just U20s, did cause difficulties. Throw in the, somewhat controversial, partnerships with Super League clubs, and there is no lack of interest for supporters of the game at a level that consistently overachieves in terms of on-field action.

The bigger top division provides a more balanced 26 league fixtures, though even that decision brought concern in some quarters, with certain coaches feeling that promoting four clubs at once could dilute the quality of what has been a superb competition. But the fact that the three Cumbrian clubs are now back at the higher level, and the continuing emergence of visionary Doncaster, should provide enough positives to counter those fears.

Cumbria provides an excellent feelgood story, as long as Barrow, Whitehaven and Workington can be competitive. Should any of the three manage to achieve notable success - a tall order in this cut-throat environment - then a county that is drenched in rugby league heritage might finally start to believe glory days of the past can return.

Those three and Doncaster will find it tough, however, to match the heavyweights at this level. Featherstone, Halifax, Leigh and Sheffield are again expected to be the front-runners, though John Kear’s Batley will rightly feel that they can challenge strongly for the top four. Behind those, the likes of Keighley and Dewsbury - both with new coaches in Paul March and Glenn Morrison - plus Swinton, will be looking to push themselves into the play-off picture.

That leaves last year’s bottom two of Hunslet and York, both of whom look well placed to improve on 2012’s efforts. The Knights have an experienced Championship coach in the shape of Gary Thornton, and Barry Eaton

Back in the big time: Champions Doncaster and Barrow were promoted

Going it alone: Featherstone won’t link but Hunslet will work with Leeds Rhinos rlphotos.com

“The old mantra ‘if you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got’ could be of huge relevance to clubs at this level...”

continues to work wonders on a tiny budget with the Hawks. The hope is that - as has been the case for many years in the Championship - there are no easy games, despite the expanded format.

To Championship One. Nine teams is hardly ideal, and comes about after Northampton - the first fledgling club to be accepted by the RFL

pulled out of the competition in August. Still, there is a trio of new additions in Hemel Hempstead, the University of Gloucester and Oxford, each of whom bring their own individual strengths to the table.

The RFL’s chief operating officer Ralph Rimmer has reported how presentations from each of those three at Championship meetings genuinely turned heads and raised the eyebrows of their more established peers, and his belief that the newcomers could actually improve the older clubs really would be a huge positive if it turns out that way.

The mantra that “if you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got” could yet become of huge relevance to clubs at this level. Bright new ideas from clubs looking at things differently could re-invigorate those around them.

So what of the traditional names left behind; those who many predicted would flounder and die in the new surroundings?

Local rivals Oldham and Rochdale Hornets have rarely started seasons on such a positive note. Both clubs have links with Super League counterparts - more of that later - new coaches, and genuine hope of some long-overdue silverware.

The last time the Roughyeds

32 Forty-20 January 2013