Gareth Walker relishes the prospect of some big names in the second tier next season
You’d have got lengthy odds on Adrian Lam and Brian McDermott coaching in the Betfred Championship not that long ago.
Lam led Wigan to the League Leaders’ Shield and within seconds of a Grand Final triumph in 2020, a season during which McDermott was still officially in charge of Toronto Wolfpack, having guided them to promotion following his trophy-laden spell at Leeds.
But next season the pair will steer Leigh Centurions and Featherstone Rovers respectively in the second tier of the professional game, following Lam’s appointment at Leigh last week.
The list of high-profile coaches operating in the Championship doesn’t stop there, given that Lam will work alongside the Centurions’ head of rugby Chris Chester, who was still at the helm at Wakefield as recently as August.
John Kear’s CV ranks alongside most in the modern game and he has hopes of taking Bradford Bulls back into Super League, while Newcastle’s bold move to a full-time squad is being steered by another man that has coached at the very top, in Thunder’s director of rugby Denis Betts.
It is a marker of what’s at stake for clubs at this level next season and beyond that they are attracting some of the sport’s most recognised names to coach or oversee their squads.
Reports persist about the possibility of two top divisions of ten teams each, although that now looks certain not to happen before 2024 at the earliest.
But the prospect of that is enough to entice clubs that believe they can have just as big an impact on the top flight as several that are already there. Lam, McDermott, Kear and Betts are all working under clearly defined targets to get their teams into the top flight.
It’s not just the coaching appointments that point to clubs’ ambitions for 2022 – when an automatic promotion place remains on the table – and beyond.
Just look at the recruitment that has taken place, including by clubs such as Halifax and York City Knights, who have added the likes of Kyle Wood and Pauli Pauli from Super League to their squads this close-season.
Leigh have signed NRL fullback Caleb Aekins and Super League duo Joe Wardle and Chris Green, while Luke Briscoe, Matty Wildie and Ben Hellewell are among Featherstone’s new recruits.
Bradford have added Dec Patton and Newcastle the likes of Mitch Clark and Alex Foster, while elsewhere in the competition, Widnes have made a host of signings that have extensive Championship experience alongside retaining Matty Smith, and Sheffield Eagles have landed Ben Jones-Bishop.
With the competition returning to regularly televised exposure on Premier Sports in 2022, that means there is plenty to get excited about.
And the close season so far has shown that despite significant cuts in central funding distribution, ambition from clubs at this level burns as brightly as ever.
That must be good for the sport overall.
Just like any well-constructed squad, those at the top of the table need to be pushed by those with potential and desire that start the season further down the ladder.
In any discussion about the pros and cons of promotion and relegation, one fact that should never be overlooked is that there are several clubs currently outside the elite that have just as much potential as many of those currently in it.
Whichever system is best to facilitate that is an argument and column for another day – no doubt when the next restructuring talks surface again.
But clubs in the Betfred Championship have already laid their cards on the table ahead of whatever unfolds. Watching them battle it out in 2022 should provide more terrific spectacles for supporters at this level.
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