Year of change: Championships fans can expect Sheffield Eagles, above, to challenge again, as will rebuilt Leigh Centurions and Keighley SWPix.com lifted a trophy was the 1990 Divisional Premiership at Old Trafford, while it’s been an even longer wait for Rochdale supporters - it’s over 90 years since they paraded the Challenge Cup, and they haven’t appeared in a final since 1991, the longest barren run in the professional game.
Both now have very real aspirations of winning the competition, though that is not to say they will have it all their own way in 2013. In fact, the favourites in many eyes are Clive Griffiths’ North Wales Crusaders, who have built significantly on their encouraging first season, with former Great Britain international Stuart Reardon among their new recruits.
Then there is London Skolars, who made very definite strides under Joe Mbu last year. If they can counter the losses of key players Lamont Bryan and Neil Thorman to the Championship, they should be right up there too.
Gateshead Thunder and South Wales Scorpions will be hoping that a new-look competition will allow them to win significantly more matches, and perhaps make the play-offs come the end of the year. They too start 2013 with much optimism.
That just leaves the new partnerships forged between Championship clubs and their Super League counterparts to cover. Encouraged by the RFL to provide opportunities for young players left by the wayside from the scrapping of the top flight’s U20s competition, they predictably created a stir when first announced.
That most dreaded of rugby league terms ‘feeder club’ was regularly aired; many Championship fans feeling that their favourites were being used by those in the top flight, while others proclaimed a great conspiracy to further distance the game’s top two competitions.
Since that initial heated response, the reaction has died down a little, as more has emerged about the link-ups. One varies greatly from the next - Rochdale and St Helens look to have the most extensive, with Saints effectively placing one of their own coaches at Hornets in Ian Talbot, a move that worried some at the time. But the facilities and advice that the top-flight club has already been able to provide has appeased many Rochdale supporters.
Elsewhere, Batley’s link with Huddersfield will see the Bulldogs’ players covered by the Giants’ private healthcare scheme - how can that be in any way a bad thing? Other clubs will simply look to use the dual registration scheme for players. Leigh’s relationship with Wigan is one example of that - the Centurions have their own Super League aspirations, and any players that come from the Warriors will simply be seen as a bonus to what they have.
Then there are the likes of Halifax, Featherstone and Sheffield, who have shunned the proposal all together, preferring to stand alone. Rovers coach Daryl Powell was among the most vocal initial opponents of the partnerships, feeling that it could seriously compromise the integrity of what has been such an admirable competition, if teams were fielding radically different lineups from one week to the next, depending on the Super League side’s needs.
Everybody in the Championships hopes that doesn’t happen, because these are leagues that have huge entertainment value - Thursday nights on Premier Sports, which will thankfully return this year, are concrete evidence of that.
Whatever unfolds, it is certain that both competitions will be fascinating to behold in 2013.
January 2013 Forty-20 33