LEIGH CENTURIONS hooker Edwin Ipape’s stellar first campaign in the European game after switching from PNG Hunters was reflected by his success in the Championship Player of the Year poll.
The 23-year-old Kumuls international took the award ahead of team-mate and forward John Asiata and their fellow nominees Theerapol Ritson, the Barrow winger, and Halifax halfback Joe Keyes.
Ipape, from Mount Hagen in PNG’s Western Highlands province, 300 miles North-West of capital Port Moresby, claimed 20 tries during Leigh’s table-topping league campaign.
He scored two more in the 70-10 play-off win over York, which set up a home Championship Grand Final promotion decider against Batley, having also crossed in the 1895 Cup final victory over Featherstone, when he took the man-of-the-match prize.
Ipape, who is contracted to Leigh until 2025, played for Wynnum Manly Seagulls as well as the Hunters in the Queensland Cup, having first emerged with Lae Tigers, who play in PNG’s domestic league, the Digicel Cup.
He has made three international appearances, including the 28-10 win over Great Britain in Port Moresby in 2019, when he scored a sparkling solo try to spark a fightback by his side.
Ipape, whose hopes of landing a deal with NRL team Manly Sea Eagles were scuppered when a trial spell was halted by the pandemic, has long been on the radar of Leigh coach and his compatriot Adrian Lam.
“I have always wanted to have him and get him under my wing to coach him into the player he is now,” said his boss, who also has PNG centre Nene Macdonald in his squad.
“I chased him hard at the start of the season, as I knew what he could do.
“Edwin has been outstanding. He was given an opportunity to travel over here and to do what he’s done is unbelievable, probably one of the greatest stories in Rugby League this year across the world.
BATLEY BULLDOGS coach Craig Lingard says guiding the club to the Championship Grand Final ranks as one of the greatest achievements of his Rugby League career.
The 44-year-old former fullback, who is the club’s record try-scorer with 142 between 1998 and 2008, termed the 32-28 play-off semi-final win at Featherstone, which made the sport sit up and take notice, as “massive”.
It booked a promotion-decider at League Leaders’ Shield winners Leigh for the fifth-placed Fox’s Biscuits Stadium side, put together on one of the lowest budgets in the Championship.
It also meant Batley went one better than last year, when they lost to Toulouse in a last-four clash in France.
Lingard was appointed ahead of the truncated 2020 season after a stint as coach of Keighley.
As assistant to John Kear, he helped Batley reach the Championship Grand Final of 2013 (Sheffield won 19-12 at Leigh) and the Qualifiers in 2016.
But he pointed out: “Given the circumstances and the financial situations of ourselves and Featherstone, I think it probably topped those games.
“Getting to the final is an outstanding achievement for us, and I have to give credit to the players, who toil week in, week out.”
Lingard, who comes from Sharlston, three miles away from Featherstone, explained: “It was obvious that with some of their players having international, Super League and NRL experience, we weren’t going to match them in terms of the quality of individuals.
“We knew we needed to beat them in the effort-based areas, things like tackling, shutting down gaps and chasing, and all of those little things we knew we could be better at.
“We wanted to complete our sets, get into the arm-wrestle, do everything possible to stop Featherstone getting comfortable, and keep the game tight for as long as possible.
“I might not have the most skilful and expensive players, but there are not many who work harder.”
FEATHERSTONE ROVERS will go into the 2023 Championship campaign with a fifth coach in eight seasons following Brian McDermott’s resignation in the wake of the play-off semi-final defeat by Batley.
The 32-28 setback on home soil wrecked hopes of promotion to Super League for another year.
McDermott, who had a highly-successful stint in charge of Leeds and guided Toronto into the top flight – at Featherstone’s expense – in 2019, was appointed in succession to James Webster after Rovers lost to Toulouse in last year’s Million Pound Game in France.
The Millennium Stadium club invested boldly in their bid to make the top flight, signing the likes of Samoa and ex-NRL centre Joey Leilua and Toulouse duo Mark Kheirallah, the France fullback, and Johnathon Ford, the Cook Islands halfback.
But they missed out on a Championship Grand Final promotion decider at Leigh – other than Batley, the only side to beat them in the league this year.
“I came to the club with a clear objective to achieve promotion to Super League, an objective which unfortunately has not been achieved,” said the 52-year-old, who started his head coaching career at London Broncos (the Harlequins).
“I feel my departure will give the club the opportunity to take a new direction and hopefully they will be able to build upon the progress made this year.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my time coaching this group of players, they have always given me great support and I will watch with interest the progress I’m sure they will make in 2023.
“I have respected greatly the club in my time here. It is steeped in tradition and has excellent facilities, and a strong supporter base. I look forward to seeing that development continue.”
Featherstone Chairman Mark Campbell said: “Brian has worked tremendously hard to (try to) achieve our promotion goal.”
Since 2015, the club has also been coached by Jon Sharp, John Duffy and Ryan Carr.
WIDNES VIKINGS must aim to follow Batley’s example under their former Bulldogs coach John Kear, according to popular forward Shane Grady.
The 32-year-old second rower, who is in his second spell at his hometown club, has penned a one-year contract extension – and has his eyes firmly on the play-offs.
He is all set for an eighth campaign with Widnes, who handed him a debut in 2008.
Grady, who started out as a fullback and has also played in the centres, left after the 2011 campaign.
He had spells in Australia, helping Thirroul Butchers to the Illawarra League title, and then at London Broncos, Halifax and Dewsbury before returning to the Vikings in 2020.
Grady recovered from knee and abductor muscle problems to feature in the final three matches of this year and so take his Widnes appearance tally to 110.
“It’s every Widnes lad’s dream to play for his hometown club,” he said.
“It was tough last season with the injuries. There’s nothing like being part of the team and training as an injured player is sometimes difficult, but it doesn’t take long to get back on it.
“I was lucky enough to start my career at Widnes and I want to finish my career here.
“As long as my body tells me I can do it, and Widnes want me, I’ll keep signing.”
Widnes, where experienced Kear took the reins in July, finished seventh, but twelve points off the play-off places.
And Grady added: “We’ve got to improve, that’s the bottom line.
“Not making the play-offs was massively disappointing. We should be doing what Batley are now. The play-offs have got to be the aim.
“With some good signings, we’ll have a good squad and we should be able to contend in every game and hopefully we can challenge.”
Widnes have also agreed a two-year contract extension with utility back Joe Edge.
BARROW RAIDERS Chairman Steve Neale and coach Paul Crarey have been warmly praised by departing star Hakim Miloudi.
The versatile France international back arrived at the Cumbrian club part way through last season, after having been at Palau Broncos. He made eight appearances with two tries as Crarey’s charges won promotion as League One champions.
Miloudi played 21 times this year, scoring ten tries, as Barrow made the play-offs, an achievement that helped Crarey win the Championship Coach of the Year award (the Raiders were crowned divisional club of the year).
The Perpignan-born former Hull and Toronto player (he helped the Wolfpack win promotion to Super League in 2019), who has also played for Saint-Estève and Carcassonne, is returning to the French competition with Albi.
Miloudi took to social media to write: “A million times thank you to Barrow Raiders.
“To the president (Neale), the most incredible I have met in my life. To the coach, and all the staff working hard for the team.
“To the boys who fight so strong every weekend on the field, and being incredible humans and friends in life.
“To the fans, the best support we can hope for when you’re a player.
“This big family has given me so much over the past two years, and my family and I are forever grateful.
“We will never forget everything that you did for us. We created a family which we call ‘our English family’.
“This decision was very difficult to make, and it is with a broken heart that I say goodbye to this incredible adventure. Other beautiful things are waiting for me.
“I wish you all the best, and there will always remain in my heart a little white and blue. It was an honour to wear your colours.”
Having originally targeted consolidation in their first second-tier season since 2019, when they were relegated alongside Rochdale, Barrow finished fourth and reached the sixth round of the Challenge Cup.
DEWSBURY RAMS coach Liam Finn says the relegated Yorkshire club’s loyal fans are playing a key part in preparations for next season through their continued support of the Squadbuilder fund.
It was launched in 2003, with all money raised going directly into the playing budget.
Dewsbury have announced the signings of forwards Matt Garside and Elliot Morris from Halifax, where Finn was assistant coach until taking the Rams job in succession to Lee Greenwood in June, and halfbacks George Collins (Castleford) and Harry Tyson-Wilson (ex-Sheffield).
And they have agreed terms for 2023 with hooker Reiss Butterworth, props Jimmy Beckett and Jackson Walker, backrower Dale Ferguson and threequarter Davey Dixon and backs Lewis Carr, Brad Graham, Ollie Greensmith and Calum Turner, as well as bringing hooker Brad Day back after a spell away from the game.
More retentions and signings are due as former Rams player Finn plots an immediate promotion from League One, where the club last played in 2009.
“On behalf of myself and the coaching team I’d like to say thank you to Squadbuilder for helping with the re-signings and signings. This help is playing a major part in creating our squad for next year,” he said.
“It’s really exciting for us that the fans are contributing so much to a big part of the team and it’s bringing interest and optimism after a difficult year.
“I’m sure they will be as pleased as me to see Elliot returning permanently. His go-forward and offload ability will be a massive asset.
“Matt is an intelligent backrower who is tough and prepared to do what it takes to help his team win.”
Second rower Chris Annakin has retired on medical advice, while Matty Beharrell, Jack Blagbrough, Aaron Hall, Harry Kidd, Michael Knowles, Jon Magrin, Ross Peltier, Adam Ryder, Jake Sweeting, Keenen Tomlinson and Jason Walton have left the club.
Dom Speakman has also retired while Ban Blackmore has joined Bradford Bulls.
YORK CITY KNIGHTS have snapped up former Tonga international forward Ukuma Ta’ai and utility Jesse Dee from divisional rivals Newcastle on two-year deals and recruited Australian hooker Josh Daley.
Ex-New Zealand Warriors player Ta’ai, 35, who has had two years on Tyneside after eight at Huddersfield, says the name of his game is to “destroy” opponents.
He made ten appearances for Tonga between 2019 and 2017, including at two World Cups, and can play anywhere in the pack.
Coach James Ford, who took his team to this year’s play-offs, said: “He has caused us problems every time we’ve played against him and we’re excited to use his qualities and experience. I’m confident his leadership will be central to us making progress.”
Ta’ai said: “With Newcastle going part-time, I knew everything would change and I started looking around.
“York have given me an opportunity and I really appreciate it. I know some of the people there from playing together and there’s some I have played against. I’m looking forward to linking up with them.
“My game is pretty much about going forward and taking opportunities. Trying to destroy people is the main thing for a forward and that’s me, I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing for a few years now.”
Australian Dee, 27, joined Newcastle from Mackay Cutters ahead of this season and can play centre, second row, loose-forward or in the halves.
Daley has forged a reputation as a top tackler with South-West Sydney-based New South Wales Cup side Mount Pritchard Mounties, where he was captain this year.
The 26-year-old will provide competition for fellow nine Will Jubb, with Ford explaining: “Josh is a very talented hooker who comes to us with very high recommendations.
“He’s strong defensively and a running threat off the back of ruck wins who will have a positive impact on our performances.”
LONDON BRONCOS prop Jordan Williams wants to push himself to new levels after agreeing a contract extension at the Wimbledon club.
The 25-year-old enjoyed a stand-out season as the Broncos fought off the threat of relegation.
Now he is targeting further improvement for both himself and the team under Mike Eccles, who has become director of rugby and performance following his stint as interim coach.
Williams, who emerged through the club’s development system having started playing the game at community club North Hertfordshire Crusaders, based in his home town of Hitchin, and has also had a spell at London Skolars, said: “This year was a big one for me.
“I feel the support of the coaching staff helped me take my game to new levels.
“Of course, results on the pitch didn’t go our way, but we pulled off some good wins towards the end and we must now look to carry that form into next season.
“Mike (Eccles) has retained a number of key players who have already established strong connections both on and off the pitch.
“It means we won’t have to go through that sticky period in pre-season which excites me, and likewise new players can settle quicker.
“London is all I know from the Academy to representing Skolars and now playing at our amazing ground.
“The Cherry Red Records Stadium gives you a good feeling when you go out on the pitch, especially with the support from the terraces.”
WHITEHAVEN interim chief executive Ashley Kilpatrick believes Josh Eaves’ familiarity with the club through a loan spell four years ago will help him hit the Cumbrian ground running.
The 24-year-old former St Helens hooker has signed after a season at Newcastle, along with Fijian prop Lasarusa Tabu, from French side Carcassonne, and Australian backrower Lachlan Lanskey, from Brisbane Tigers of the Queensland Cup.
Eaves scored eight tries in 23 appearances on loan from Saints in 2018 (he also had spells at Leigh and Wakefield).
Whitehaven have both established number nines, Callum Phillips and James Newton, working their way back from knee injuries, as is Alex Bishop, the Australian halfback who can also play hooker and who recently agreed a deal for 2023.
“It’s great to get Evo back,” said Kilpatrick.
“He was good for us when he was on loan and he tells me loved his time here.
“Obviously with what’s happened at Newcastle (the club have moved from full to part-time status), he sees his future away from there and has signed for us.
“Since his previous time here, he has played in Super League for St Helens, Leigh and Wakefield and has become an established Championship hooker in his time at Newcastle.”
BRADFORD BULLS hooker George Flanagan is confident he will be fit for the start of next season after having checks on a nagging thumb problem.
It kept him out for six of the Bulls’ 29 league and Challenge Cup games, and the soon-to-be 36-year-old will see a specialist.
Flanagan, whose teenage son, also called George, also played for the first team this year, has signed a one-year contract extension at his home-city club.
He came through the Bradford Academy but switched to Batley, who gave him debut at senior level in 2009.
There were also spells at Dewsbury, Batley (again), Featherstone and Hunslet before he returned to Odsal in 2018.
“I’ll play as long as my body can take it. I still feel fresh and fit enough to carry on,” he told the Telegraph and Argus.
“The thumb is strong enough and okay movement-wise, just sore if I get a knock on it. I’ve had an MRI scan and will see the specialist.
“I should be all right for the start of next season definitely.”
Bradford, who have re-signed second rower Sam Scott for 2023, face Greece at Odsal on Saturday (3pm) as Steve Georgallis’ side prepare for the Work Cup.
HALIFAX PANTHERS hope the presence of their popular halfback Louis Jouffret in the France squad will help attract a bumper crowd for Les Bleus’ World Cup warm-up against much-fancied Tonga at The Shay on Saturday (2pm).
Jouffret, 27, has been a hit since signing from Whitehaven a year ago, and helped Simon Grix’s side make the play-offs (they were beaten 26-24 by York in an eliminator).
The former Toulouse, Batley, Featherstone and Avignon player’s form has helped earn him a World Cup call from Laurent Frayssinous, whose side are among England’s Group A opponents.
The clash with Kristian Woolf’s Tonga is being staged by Calderdale Council and NovoSports, whose project chief executive Jimmy Smith said: “We believe this is the blue-riband event on a magic weekend for Rugby League fans before the World Cup proper.
“Tonga are a phenomenon in our game – the first new nation to beat Australia in 68 years – and they have a genuine chance of making sporting history this Autumn.
“France have their own narrative that is well documented and are now building towards delivering the World Cup in 2025, having had two Super League teams in 2022.”
SHEFFIELD EAGLES saw off competition from divisional rivals Barrow and Bradford to land the coveted Championship/League One Foundation of the Year award.
It follows several significant initiatives in the South Yorkshire city, including the launch of wheelchair and Learning Disability Rugby League teams, a successful women’s side that reached their League One Grand Final, and a heritage project coinciding with the club’s return to Sheffield at the Olympic Legacy Park.
After a nomadic spell, the Eagles played their first game there in May, beating Widnes 34-24.
Originally established in 2001 as the Include Foundation, the charity was rebranded in 2021, having employed former England women’s player Andrew Dobson.
“We have decided to rename the foundation to make a stronger association with the Sheffield Eagles brand,” explained trustee David Butler.
“Our vision is to harness the power of sport to make a lasting, positive impact on individuals’ lives in the Sheffield City Region and we will make more cut-through and have better recognition if we use the power of the Sheffield Eagles brand.”
NEWCASTLE THUNDER incoming coach Chris Thorman will go into next season without versatile forwards Ukuma Ta’ai and Ellis Robson, who have joined York and Keighley respectively, and York-bound utility Jesse Dee.
Their departure follows those of fellow pack members Brad Day, who has returned to Featherstone, whom he left at the end of last season, and St Helens product Josh Eaves, who has joined Whitehaven.
Newcastle, who have turned to local product Thorman, the former Huddersfield and England halfback, after he left Workington, have reverted to part-time status after a season as a full-time operation, with director of rugby Denis Betts also leaving.
Former New Zealand Warriors and Tonga star Ta’ai, 35, moved to the North-East ahead of the 2021 campaign after eight years at Huddersfield.
Robson, 24, switched to Newcastle from Warrington in May after struggling to get a spot with the Wolves.
WORKINGTON TOWN second rower Jordan Thomson will be back at Derwent Park next season.
The 29-year-old ex-Whitehaven player has joined hooker Matty Henson and halfback Ciaran Walker in committing to the relegated club for 2023 and said: “I’m happy to be staying.”
Thomson, who came through the local community game – he has played for Hensingham and Kells – is in the Cumbria squad for the clash with Jamaica at Workington’s Derwent Park on Friday (7.45pm).
The visitors are preparing for their first World Cup finals.
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