LEIGH CENTURIONS points machine Krisnan Inu is hoping home advantage will prove key as the club target a two-match passage back to Super League.
Finishing top of the table, five points in front of Featherstone, earned Adrian Lam’s side a home play-off semi-final this Sunday.
And should they win that, Leigh would then host the Million Pound Game on Sunday, October 1 (6.30pm).
The Centurions won 26 of their 27 league games, setting a new all-time seasonal points record of 1,306.
And 348 of them came from Inu, who crossed for 22 tries, the same number as teammate Nene Macdonald, and kicked 130 goals.
The 35-year-old former NRL threequarter, who has represented both New Zealand and Samoa, topped both the divisional goals and points chart.
That’s despite not making his debut after signing from French side Lézignan until the 26-16 round-six win at Halifax on March 21.
Inu, who has also played for Parramatta Eels, New Zealand Warriors, Canterbury Bulldogs, Catalans Dragons, Widnes and Salford, claimed two tries and kicked ten goals as the Centurions won 64-6 at home to Batley, when they were presented with the League Leaders’ Shield.
“It was awesome to be able to celebrate that achievement in front of our own fans,” he said.
“They’ve been with us every step of the way, turning up in numbers for away games as well as home.
“It’s their trophy too, and we’re looking forward to seeing them again for the play-off semi-final.
“Hopefully we’ll have two more home games, but we all know there’s a really big job in front of us on Sunday, and we’re doing all we can to refresh ourselves.”
Leigh duo John Asiata and Edwin Ipape are among the four nominees for the Championship Player of the Year award, while Lam is in the running for the divisional Coach of the Year gong.
FEATHERSTONE ROVERS have retained high-profile quintet Johnathon Ford, Mark Kheirallah, Joey Leilua, Gadwin Springer and Luke Briscoe for next season.
The development will have come as a boost as the club prepares for a home play-off semi-final on Sunday.
Cook Islands halfback Ford, 33, and France fullback Kheirallah, 32, who is currently recovering from a knee injury, both joined Featherstone after leaving Toulouse on the eve of the current Super League season.
The pair, both of whom previously played for Sydney Roosters, were part of the Toulouse side who thwarted Rovers’ bid to win promotion to the top flight last year by winning the Million Pound Game 34-12.
Samoa and former Roosters, Newcastle Knights, Canberra Raiders and Wests Tigers centre Leilua, 30, was signed in the wake of that defeat as Featherstone regrouped for another bid to make Super League, this time under Brian McDermott.
France prop Springer, 29, started his second spell at Rovers after switching from Toulouse in June. He has also played for Catalans Dragons, Castleford, Toronto, Halifax and Villeneuve.
Featherstone won 23 and drew one of their 27 games this year to finish second to, and five points behind, promotion favourites Leigh, who claimed victory in two of the three league clashes between the pair.
Chairman Mark Campbell said: “Attracting players of this calibre is one thing, but being able to retain them shows the environment we’ve built and how we’ve helped these players settle in here.”
Leilua, who was Dally M Centre of the Year in both 2016 and 2018, said: “Me and my family love the lifestyle here, so it was a really easy decision to make.”
Kheirallah explained: “I felt that having been injured, I’d not had the opportunity to give what I really wanted to give. I’m grateful for the second chance.”
Ford said: “Me and my family are super-happy here and to have the opportunity to play alongside Killer (Mark Kheirallah) again is great.”
Threequarter Briscoe, 28, is in his second spell with Rovers after two at Leeds.
YORK CITY KNIGHTS winger AJ Towse is in the running for the Championship Young Player of the Year award.
And the 19-year-old’s nomination, alongside Sam Eseh, the Wakefield prop who has been on loan at both Barrow and Featherstone, and London Broncos halfback Oliver Leyland, is also a feather in the cap of nearby community club Heworth, where Towse played in the juniors.
The Knights have a good relationship with the National Conference League side, and gave one of their players, 19-year-old prop Ben Barnard, a debut from the bench in their final match of the regular season, the 74-12 home win over Workington.
Towse made his 16th appearance of the campaign in that game, and has scored eight tries after establishing himself on the left flank after originally being given an opportunity because of injuries to more experienced players.
After shining in York’s Excel player development programme, he was signed ahead of the 2021 season (when he played twice, including in the home Challenge Cup clash with Wigan).
Coach James Ford said at the time: “AJ is a medium to long-term project who I feel is coming along very positively.
“The initial qualities that attracted me to AJ – his drive, tenacity and willingness to take responsibility for his own development – are even more evident and I truly believe these characteristics will help him continue to develop at a rapid rate.”
Two other ex-Heworth juniors, fullback Myles Harrison and centre Brad Ward, are among the Knights squad, while a third, second rower Toby Warren, has just joined Leeds on a four-year deal after playing for the Rhinos’ reserve team on loan.
York went into their play-off eliminator at Halifax having agreed two-year contract extensions with former Wakefield and Salford prop Pauli Pauli and ex-Sheffield centre James Glover.
But frontrower Joe Porter has announced his retirement after six seasons at the club, with Ford saying: “He should be proud.”
LONDON BRONCOS have launched a new-look coaching set-up led by Mike Eccles.
The 37-year-old former strength and conditioning specialist and head of performance became interim coach following the departure of Jermaine Coleman in May and guided the capital side to Championship safety.
Having taken only three points from twelve matches under Coleman, who switched from London Skolars a year ago as the former Super League club reverted to part-time status, Eccles enjoyed seven wins from 15, with the Broncos finishing eleventh, ten points above the drop zone.
Now the former Salford strength and conditioning chief, who moved to London in 2012, has become director of rugby and performance at the Wimbledon club, who have confirmed Papuan prop Wellington Albert, Cook Islands winger Paul Ulberg and Scotland fullback Alex Walker as their first retentions for 2023.
Eccles, who is originally from Leigh and spent five years at Salford, will be supported by two assistants, who are yet to be recruited, plus a new strength and conditioning coach and a performance analyst.
“To be given the opportunity to lead this great club is an honour,” he said.
“The club and I have worked closely to ensure we have an appropriate infrastructure in place so we can build on the positives from the back end of this season.
“Our performances in recent months have been very encouraging and it excites me to see what this team can achieve together with a full pre-season.
“Already we have retained the services of several key players who will each hold an important role next season and I am confident our supporters will be pleased when we confirm details of our first signings shortly.”
Broncos Chairman and owner David Hughes said: “Mike has an outstanding approach and has consistently proven an ability to help players and staff fulfil their potential.
“Performances in the second part of this season perfectly demonstrate his ability to lead a team at this level and we share his excitement for the future.”
BRADFORD BULLS coach Mark Dunning is already looking ahead to the 2023 campaign – amid a tale of two Toms.
While the Odsal club, who after finishing ninth will be desperate to improve on a dismal home record of just four wins from 13 league games, have confirmed the signing of former Super League halfback Tom Holmes on a two-year contract, hooker Tom Doyle will have to serve a three-match suspension for dangerous contact (prop Ebon Scurr has been hit with an eight-game ban for an attack on an opponent’s genitals).
While supporters are waiting to see whether 23-year-old Academy product Doyle remains (he is reportedly a target of neighbours Keighley), ex-Castleford, Featherstone, Huddersfield and Sheffield man Holmes, 26, is expected to have a key role.
“Above and beyond his Super League and Championship experience, he’s an absolutely champion bloke,” explained Dunning, who also has halfbacks Jordan Lilley and Dec Patton on the books for next season.
“His vision and philosophies are really good and he comes into that halfback set-up where some of our emerging blokes, like Myles Lawford, will really enjoy learning from him.”
Like many clubs, Bradford have been hit by injuries this year, and Dunning explained: “Having a settled spine is a necessity, and we’re absolutely intent on making sure next year is nowhere near what we’ve had to go through this season.
“We’re trying to make sure that, should we pick up a few injuries in that position, we’re not in the same situation again.”
Bradford have also signed 26-year-old Wales centre or second row Chester Butler, who has been on loan from Huddersfield this year, on a two-year deal and Dewsbury’s former Castleford, Huddersfield, Featherstone and Sheffield winger Ben Blackmore, 29, on one-year terms.
But 32-year-old skipper and prop Steve Crossley, who came through the Academy, has ended his third spell at his home-city club.
BARROW RAIDERS could claim a double when the Championship Coach and Player of the Year awards are handed out at Headingley on Monday, September 26.
Paul Crarey is among three nominations for the former after leading the club to the play-offs a year after promotion as League One champions.
And winger Theerapol Ritson could claim the latter after a stand-out season in which he topped the regular campaign divisional try chart with 28.
In addition, the 26-year-old Thailand international crossed five times in cup-ties, and his double in the 30-20 win at London Broncos earlier this month took his career total to 100 ahead of the home play-off eliminator against Batley.
Alongside North Wales Crusaders winger Rob Massam, Ritson was the joint-top scorer in League One last season with 22 tries, and since joining the Raiders from Newcastle ahead of the 2019 campaign, he has totalled 70.
He scored 18 for Newcastle and twelve for Workington, for whom he made his debut in 2014 after emerging as a top prospect at amateur club Maryport.
Former Barrow hooker Crarey – he made 172 appearances between 1987 and 1995 – is in his second spell at the helm.
After cutting his coaching teeth with local sides Dalton and Walney Central, he first took the Raiders reins in 2005, breathing new life into the club after a tough spell.
A fall-out led to his departure, and a spell at Whitehaven, but Crarey, who is also coach of the Cumbria county side, returned to Barrow in 2014, and has been in situ ever since.
Having made second-tier survival their priority this year, the Raiders won 18 and drew one of their 27 league games to finish fourth.
Forward Ellis Gillam made his 100th career appearance against London Broncos.
It was the 24-year-old’s 31st Barrow appearance after 55 for Whitehaven and 14 for Rochdale.
Gillam was a product of the Warrington development system.
WHITEHAVEN have retained Australian halfback Alex Bishop for next season – but confirmed the departures of his countryman, second rower Ryan King, and Kiwi pivot Nikau Williams.
King, who seems set to join Halifax, and Williams, who is being linked with rivals Newcastle Thunder, were both signed ahead of the 2021 campaign, while Bishop switched from Runaway Bay Seagulls, who play in the Gold Coast competition, before this season.
The grandson of former Barrow halfback and Great Britain captain Tommy Bishop, the former Queensland Cup operator (with Sunshine Coast Falcons, Souths Logan Magpies and Norths Devils) was a regular in the early stages of the year.
But the 28-year-old sustained a season-ending shattered kneecap in his ninth appearance, the home Challenge Cup sixth-round defeat by St Helens.
Since then, he has been working his way back to fitness and contributing to the club’s community programme and working with the West Cumbria development side and the girls’ future scheme.
“I was devastated for my season to end the way it did, but happy to be at Whitehaven next season and I’m looking forward to getting back playing,” he said.
The club’s interim chief executive Ashley Kilpatrick explained: “I’m delighted we’ve been able to tie Alex down for another twelve months.
“I think we were just starting to see the best of him before the injury.
“Alex has bought into what we are doing in the community and has been coaching the development squad along with (compatriot and Wales international back) Will Evans and the girls’ side along with Claire Hall.
“I think next season, we will see the best of Bish coming back off this injury; he’s keen to get back out on the field and show us what he can do.”
King chalked up 14 tries in 27 appearances this year, including one in the final game, a 40-24 home win over Newcastle, when Williams, an ever-present, landed four goals.
SHEFFIELD EAGLES skipper Anthony Thackeray has reversed his decision to retire and agreed a contract extension for next year.
The 36-year-old halfback, who has just finished his fourth season at the club after switching from Featherstone, joins fellow former Super League players, winger Ben Jones-Bishop and centre Kris Welham, in remaining at the Olympic Legacy Park.
Welham, 35, and Jones-Bishop, 34, were signed from Featherstone and York respectively ahead of this season.
Both played in Wednesday’s season-closing 34-24 home win over Dewsbury (Welham crossed for two tries), while Thackeray, who needs seven more points to reach 1,000 for his career, was ruled out by suspension.
He scored 24 tries in 27 games this year, and director of rugby Mark Aston said: “We all know the importance of Thacks to this team.
“We have had a few conversations as the season has gone on regarding his retirement.
“I felt he had a lot left in the tank, but ultimately it was down to him and whether he felt it was right to play on or not.
“He has been a joy to watch, a joy to coach and a joy to be around this season.
“We’re all extremely happy that he will be coming back to play in the red and gold.”
Aston added: “It’s a big statement of intent for the club that we can keep hold of both Kris and Ben.
“They have been two of our best performers all season and neither show any signs of slowing down.”
NEWCASTLE THUNDER Chair Keith Christie has thanked departing director of rugby Denis Betts for his work since joining the club in March 2019.
The former Wigan and Great Britain second rower and Wigan and Widnes coach was in interim charge for the final twelve games of a disappointing season after Eamon O’Carroll left Kingston Park.
Operating as one of only two full-time teams (alongside League Leaders’ Shield winners Leigh), Newcastle finished twelfth, with only seven wins and a draw from their 27 matches.
Thunder, who have been linked with Newcastle-born former Workington coach Chris Thorman, are now reverting to part-time status.
“Denis has decided he will leave the club,” said Christie in the first official confirmation of the development.
“He has been an integral part of our set-up and I’d like to thank him for all his efforts since he joined us.
“We’re naturally sad to see him go but we part on good terms and wish him all the best for the future.”
Betts, 52, said: “I’m of course disappointed that my time at Newcastle is coming to a close. I have enjoyed it, but also feel the time has come to move on.
“I wish the club all the best and hope that the team continues to develop under different stewardship.”
WIDNES VIKINGS coach John Kear has told supporters: “Better things are around the corner.”
The 67-year-old, who will lead Wales in the World Cup, joined the former Super League club in July, having parted company with Bradford in April.
He returned to Odsal to chalk up a welcome sixth win in his eleventh game, by a 23-10 margin, which left Widnes seventh in the final standings, and said: “We have a good team already, and we’re going to add to it.
“The new recruits will help keep training and playing standards high, and it’s going to be very difficult to get in this team next year.
“I’m looking forward to it and I hope the supporters feel better things are around the corner, because I certainly do.”
Kear used his knowledge of the tight Bradford pitch to come up with his winning game plan.
“Because of the dimensions, you have to go through opponents, not around them,” he explained. “We were very direct. You become more of a nine than a six and seven team, and I thought Matty Fozard was tremendous from dummy-half.”
Matty Smith and Steve Tyrer are retiring, while Kenny Baker, Levy Nzoungou, Jake Spedding, Lewis Hulme and Dec Gregory are departing.
WORKINGTON TOWN have thanked their fans after a difficult campaign during which all 15 games away from Derwent Park ended in defeat and the club was relegated back to League One a year after winning promotion through the play-offs.
In 29 games in all, there were only two victories, both at home – against London Broncos in the league and Dewsbury in the fourth round of the Challenge Cup.
Town, who have been battling financial problems and lost several players because of renegotiating contracts, tweeted after the season-ending 74-12 loss at York: “To the two coach loads of supporters and those who travelled in cars, we thank you.
“And to the fans whose support for the team never ever wavered in this, the most trying of seasons, we thank you.”
Departing coach Chris Thorman said on social media: “It’s been a privilege to lead this great club.
“What a ride. Cumbria will always have a place in my heart. I’ll be forever a Townie, but it’s on to new opportunities.”
DEWSBURY RAMS have retained threequarter Brad Graham, backrower Dale Ferguson and centre Ollie Greensmith for next season, as well as bringing hooker Brad Day back to the club after a spell away from the game, as they plot an immediate response to relegation.
But hooker or halfback Dom Speakman has called time on his career at 28.
The St Helens product was in his second spell with Dewsbury, having also played for Rochdale, Barrow, North Wales Crusaders and Widnes.
Rams coach Liam Finn said: “Congratulations to Dom on his career.
“It’s a disappointing way to finish, having a concussion, but he can look back with pride at his time in the game.”
Dewsbury’s disappointing season ended with a 34-24 defeat at Sheffield last Wednesday, the match having originally been scheduled for the previous Friday, only to be postponed following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“It was a massive effort,” said Finn.
“A lot of players had made other plans, but there were no complaints from them about having to rearrange things.”
BATLEY BULLDOGS coach Craig Lingard sent his side into eliminator action at Barrow praising their dedication and commitment to the cause.
It’s the second season running the Yorkshire side, who have one of the lowest playing budgets in the division at around £200,000, have made the play-offs.
Former Batley player Lingard has won widespread praise for his team leadership, but says it’s an all-round effort, and that each member of the fifth-placed side has bought into the philosophy and methods he has worked to instil since returning three years ago.
“I can’t overstate my admiration for the way they approach training and playing for this club,” said the 44-year-old.
“We’re talking about people who combine Rugby League with tough and demanding jobs, and of course most have family commitments too.”
HALIFAX PANTHERS coach Simon Grix says his nomination for the Championship Coach of the Year award alongside Barrow’s Paul Crarey and Leigh’s Adrian Lam is “more a reflection” of his players’ achievements.
The 36-year-old former Halifax and Warrington star, appointed in succession to Richard Marshall, to whom he had been assistant, in May 2019, has taken the Yorkshire side to the play-offs for the second season in succession.
“Personal accolades are not what anyone is in it for, but it’s nice to be considered among really good company,” he said.
The Panthers’ former Hull KR halfback Joe Keyes is in the running alongside Leigh duo John Asiata and Edwin Ipape and Barrow’s Theerapol Ritson for the divisional player of the year award.
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