2021 Championship Preview: Newcastle Thunder

Newcastle Thunder are the new kids on the block in the 2021 Championship season.

With no side dropping down from Super League, it’s up to Thunder to add the spark to Rugby League’s second tier and they’re certainly well equipped to do so.

They are a side, promoted from League 1 only a few months ago, capable of producing the signing of Super League stalwart Ukuma Ta’ai from Huddersfield (pictured).

A League Leaders’ Shield winner back in 2013 with the Giants, Ta’ai joins Newcastle for, like some of his team-mates, his first foray into Championship rugby. With that calibre of signing, it would be easy to think that Newcastle are ready to make a big impression in the Championship.

New coach Eamon O’Carroll, in his first head-coach role after joining Thunder in the off-season from Catalans, certainly hopes his side can put the cat amongst the pigeons, but he knows that every club in this division is more experienced in the Championship than his.

“It would be quite disrespectful for me to come in and say that we’re going to aim for mid-table or the play-offs,” says O’Carroll.

“We’re new to the competition and we’ve not earned the right to say that.

“What I can say is that our aim is to be competitive every week. It’s one of the things I speak about to the players on a daily basis. If we do that, then come the end of the season our finishing position will be the right one and will reflect that.

“We can start with that, which will give us a platform to build on in the future. There are some really good teams in the Championship who have played in it for years.”

O’Carroll himself has never played or coached in the Championship before, having spent his entire playing career in Super League with Wigan, Hull FC and Widnes. However, while he was a player, games against Championship clubs in pre-season games and cup ties were never easy affairs.

“It’s a tough competition and you have to know it,” he continues.

“I know that from my playing days. I remember playing Championship teams and they were always very tough games.

“I think for lads to go out and work and then come and play the toughest sport in the world, they’ve got to have something about them.”

Even with big-name signings such as Ta’ai, O’Carroll has been pleased with those of his players making the step up from League 1.

“I’ve been really impressed with the lads that have come up,” he says.

“I knew before I came that they would be more than capable from the feedback I got from Denis (Betts, Director of Rugby).

“Some of the lads have played in the Championship anyway and just had a year down in League 1. I’ve no doubt that those lads will be competitive in the Championship.

“If you ask them, they may feel there has been a lift in intensity in the things that they’re doing. They’re training an extra day a week compared to what they did last year and they’ve certainly handled it well.”

This season will see the new six-again rule, which is designed to speed up the game even more, played by semi-professional players in this country for the first time. But O’Carroll is confident they’ll be able to handle it, even if it takes time for them to adapt to it.

“Cope with it? Certainly! Will it take the players some time to adapt? Probably,” he says.

“Speeding the game up is good, but it has to be done in the right way. The contact element is the one I’m cautious about and just making sure every player in the league gets enough time to prepare for that. The speed of the game will hurt them in the lungs definitely, but we’ll make sure everyone is prepared.”

Newcastle Thunder 2021 squad list: Harry Aldous, Connor Bailey, Bob Beswick, Joe Brown, Jay Chapelhow, Ted Chapelhow, Rhys Clarke, Alex Clegg, Reece Dean, Alex Donaghy, Kieran Gill, Ollie Gowing, Evan Hodgson, Kieran Hudson, Jack Johnson, Samy Kibula, Liam McAvoy, Cole Oakley, Colton Roche, Jake Shorrocks, Evan Simons, Ukuma Ta’ai, Cian Tyrer, Calum Turner, Nathan Wilde, Sam Wilde, Mikey Wood, Josh Woods, Matty Wright, Lewis Young

Ins: Connor Bailey (Wakefield Trinity – loan), Jay Chapelhow (Widnes Vikings), Ted Chapelhow (Newcastle Thunder), Jack Johnson (Widnes Vikings), Evan Hodgson (Bradford Bulls), Samy Kibula (Warrington Wolves – loan), Cole Oakley (Warrington Wolves), Jake Shorrocks (Wigan Warriors), Ukuma Ta’ai (Huddersfield Giants), Calum Turner (Castleford Tigers), Cian Tyrer (Wigan Warriors), Nathan Wilde (Wigan Warriors), Sam Wilde (Widnes Vikings), Josh Woods (Wigan Warriors)

Outs: Quentin Laulu-Togagae (Keighley Cougars), Adam Lawton (Widnes Vikings), Sam Luckley (Salford Red Devils)

Head coach: Eamon O’Carroll

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