FEATHERSTONE ROVERS are suddenly within touching distance of Super League.
The decision to reinstate promotion and relegation means Rovers, who have topped the Championship table for the last four years, now have a place in the top-flight in sight.
Rovers will need to see off current Super League clubs in the new eight-team play-offs, being introduced next year, but there is every incentive for the Big Fellas Stadium club to maintain and improve their standards on and off the field.
Once again, they will be the team to beat in the Kingstone Press-sponsored second tier this term. New coach John Bastian saw his much-changed side win all four of their pre-season games, including convincing victories over Super League teams Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and Hull.
Remarkably, Rovers did not concede a second-half point in any of their trial matches and it is hard to spot a weakness in their line-up. Bastian has a strong, deep squad which blends youth and experience. Seasoned campaigners like Ian Hardman, Greg Worthington, Andy Ellis, Steve Crossley and Tim Spears will again be the backbone of the side, but Rovers have recruited well.
George Flanagan, a member of Batley’s Grand Final team last year, will be a smart acquisition and Gareth Moore has the potential to fill the considerable gap left by Liam Finn’s departure. Kyle Briggs is nearing his return from a long injury lay-off and he will add to the play-making options available to Bastian.
Ex-Leeds academy duo Jamel Chisholm and Josh Sunley have a point to prove and the potential to do well at Championship level and local boy Jamie Cording will be full of confidence after being part of Huddersfield Giants’ table-topping Super League squad last year.
Jack Bussey is beginning to make a name for himself at stand-off and Ben Hellewell will look to kick on after starring for Ireland in last year’s World Cup.
The Championship is a long, tough competition and Rovers face some strong opposition – including Sheffield Eagles, Halifax and Leigh Centurions – but they will be difficult to beat.
Several Batley players decamped to Featherstone after last year’s Grand Final defeat by Sheffield, but Bulldogs boss John Kear has built another side who look capable of challenging the big four.
Bulldogs’ dual-registered Huddersfield Giants contingent could have a major role to play in their camapign and pre-season results suggest Kear has recruited cleverly with Lee Paterson, signed from Halifax, possibly being the pick of the bunch.
Half-back Scott Leatherbarrow will have big responsibility on his shoulders, replacing Gareth Moore, but despite major changes since last season’s Grand Final Bulldogs again look capable of mounting a challenge to teams with far greater resources.
Dewsbury Rams did well in Glenn Morrison’s first season as coach last year, finishing seventh and getting through the opening round of the play-offs and they look capable of doing better this term.
Rams were competitive every week in 2013 and have added some quality players, particularly experienced ex-Super League hooker Wayne Godwin. The former Castleford, Wigan, Hull and Salford rake is one of the biggest names to drop down to the Championship this year and his arrival is a signal of intent from Rams.
Karl Pryce is another Rams player with plenty of top-flight experience and much is expected of Louis Sheriff, who has returned from a season playing in Australia.
New half-backs Anthony Thackeray and Tom Hemingway have also played in Super League and coach Morrison has high hopes for some of Rams’ emerging youngsters, particularly Joel Farrell, whose father Anthony was a Challenge Cup winner with Leeds Rhinos in 1999.