PROMOTION TO Super League is the ultimate prize for teams in the Kingstone Press Championship this year.
The top-four sides after 23 rounds will go into a mini-series – known as the Qualifiers – against Super League’s bottom quartet for places in the elite competition in 2016.
The rest will enter a new Championship Shield competition. The top-four at the end of that will contest knockout semi-finals to decide the Championship Shield finalists, while the bottom-two are relegated to League One.
Featherstone Rovers, who were runners-up both in the table and last year’s Grand Final, are among the clubs with ambitions to be playing in Super League next season.
Star signings include former Warrington Wolves duo Paul Wood and Garreth Carvell, plus Samoan international forward Reni Maitua – who has played in the NRL for Canterbury Bulldogs, Cronulla Sharks and Parramatta Eels – and ex-England back Paul Sykes, from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
“After round 23 we need to be in the top-four,” said Rovers coach Andy Hay.
“That is the main target and then we need to be as high in the top-four as possible, because the Qualifiers are a seeded competition.
“We know it will be tough, but we’ve worked long and hard putting a squad together and in pre-season and we’ll be well prepared for it.”
Rovers had a mixed pre-season campaign, including a shock loss at Batley Bulldogs, but Hay insisted: “I think we are on track.
“It has been difficult having to wait for the overseas players to arrive, but the facilities we’ve got have meant we’ve been able to do everything we’ve needed to.
“Results sometimes go against you in warm-up games and it’s better then than during the season. The game at Batley was a real wake-up call.”
Bulldogs staged a great escape last year, after looking doomed to relegation into the third tier and coach John Kear is confident they will continue that momentum this term.
“I was confident before our pre-season games, because we’ve got a bigger squad and that gives a great empathy at training,” Kear said.
“With lots of numbers you can do opposed work and that adds to the quality of training. That was reflected in the quality of performances in the trial games, so I am even more confident now.”
Kear said reaching the Championship Shield semi-finals would make it a good season for Bulldogs, but he insisted: “We are aiming higher.
“If you shoot for the stars you might reach the moon.
“That’s what we’ll be doing, but it is a great division and it will be tough.”
Dewsbury Rams coach Glenn Morrison also has high ambitions.
He said: “Everyone would like to get into the top-four, but realistically at least four teams are spending a fair bit of money.
“If we get into the top-six it will be a great achievement for us and hopefully we can push on and win the finals in the Championship Shield.”
Morrison added: “We’ve got a stronger squad this year. We’ve got plenty of depth in the positions we needed to improve and we’re looking good. We know it is going to be a tough year, but we are looking forward to it.”
Newly-promoted Hunslet Hawks have a mountain to climb this year, but coach Barry Eaton is confident they can handle the challenge ahead.
Hawks finished second in Kingstone Press Championship One last season, but secured a place in the higher division thanks to a dramatic golden-point extra time win over Oldham in the Grand Final.
The supporters-run club will be up against opposition including former Super League sides London Broncos and Bradford Bulls and full-time outfit Leigh Centurions, but Eaton – who has rebuilt his squad since the Grand Final victory – refuses to be daunted.
“In terms of finance we are behind other teams in our division,” Eaton conceded.
“But we have recruited well with the budget we’ve got and we’ve also been able to get a few players over the line because of their familiarity with other players at the club.
“That has helped with two or three signings and been a real positive.
“We know it is going to be tough, but we have had a really good pre-season.
“It has been a tough one, but there’s been very little disruption and we’ve been able to do what we planned.”
Hawks have recruited some seasoned campaigners, led by former Featherstone Rovers star Andy Kain and Eaton added: “If we can stay in this division the season will be deemed a success.
“That’s not saying we aren’t looking any higher than keeping out of the bottom-two.
“We know it is going to be tough, but we think we are good enough to give ourselves a chance of staying up.
“We will be among the favourites for relegation, but we are hoping to catch on or two teams off guard.”