Newcastle Thunder stunned their Championship rivals by announcing the signing of Tongan international Ukuma Ta’ai last week.
Ta’ai, who was released by Super League side Huddersfield Giants at the end of last year spent nine years in West Yorkshire with the Giants, helping them to lift the League Leaders’ Shield in 2013 and scoring 48 tries in almost 200 Super League games.
“Ukuma is a great signing for us, he is going to bring a wealth of experience to what is a relatively young squad,” said coach, Eamon O’Carroll.
“When I have spoken to him, he sounds excited to be coming to Thunder and wants to be part of the club and is going to fit in well with our group and goals.”
Meanwhile, Head of Rugby Denis Betts was thrilled to secure a quality signing for his side.
“Ukuma is a big statement signing for us as a club,” he said.
“He is a high-quality Super League player and he is going to add a great deal to our squad.
“He is a devastating back row with great ability to break open a game and will be an enforcer for us in the forwards.
“With massive amounts of experience it is a big statement that a player like him has chosen to come to Thunder and I looking forward to him arriving.”
HALIFAX PANTHERS coach Simon Grix has revealed that he is still on the lookout for two players to bolster his pack after leaving the numbers 25 and 26 available on the announcement on the clubs’ squad numbers.
The Panthers have recruited strongly during the off season and off the back of a successful rebrand, Grix’ business is not finished yet.
Meanwhile, the reveal saw new signing Greg Worthington take the number 3 shirt, replacing Steve Tyrer after his move to Widnes.
New halfback pair Liam Harris and Connor Robinson will wear 6 and 7 respectively while Dan Murray will don the 10 jersey.
“Read into them what you will but squad numbers we have to have,” Grix said.
“I’ve always looked at it this way, if 1-17 were to start Round 1 it would be highly unlikely to stay that way for long.
“Everyone has to compete for a jersey, a squad number is no guarantee.”
Grix also spoke of his delight at the competition’s return to contact training.
The Panthers reported no Covid-19 cases during their testing last week, green lighting their return to indoor training as well as opposed sessions.
“We really want and need to get back to opposed sessions and wrestling but we must continue to minimise the risks the best we can, by controlling what we can, continuing to make the most of the the time we have,” Grix continued.
Halifax Panthers squad numbers: 1 Scott Grix, 2 Shaun Robinson, 3 Greg Worthington, 4 James Woodburn-Hall, 5 James Saltonstall, 6 Liam Harris, 7 Connor Robinson, 8 Elliot Morris, 9 Brandon Moore, 10 Dan Murray, 11 Matt Garside, 12 Ed Barber, 13 Jacob Fairbank, 14 Kevin Larroyer, 15 Gadwin Springer, 16 Will Calcott, 17 Ben Kavanagh, 18 Connor Davies, 19 Conor McGrath, 20 Curtis Davies, 21 Zack McComb, 22 Amir Bourouh, 23 Sion Jones, 24 Ben Tibbs, 27 Paul Brearley
SWINTON LIONS have revealed record player sponsorship income ahead of the 2021 season.
The Lions have recruited stars such as Martyn Ridyard in preparation for the Championship this season and began announcing squad numbers late last week with the full list available in next week’s League Express.
“With the impact of Covid-19 creating other priorities, we were a bit later than usual this year in looking to attract player sponsors.
“Therefore it was just a week ago today, that we began the process inviting pre-existing sponsors the opportunity to renew. We then extended the net to the wider fan base, and all I can say is that the response has been absolutely astonishing!
“We offered an ambitious looking 83 separate individual sponsorship packages at a range of prices, but in less than a week the whole lot had been sold out.
“Our sales figures in this specific area are up over 30% on our previous record, and bearing in mind the fact that our fans and partners haven’t seen a game for nearly 12 months, and we’re still in the middle of a terrible pandemic which has affected so many lives, we are absolutely humbled by the response.
“Perhaps it should come as no surprise, given the ongoing and tremendous efforts of our supporter groups such as PrideBuilder, The Supporters Trust, and the Station Roaders. So from everyone at the club, including of course all of our fully sponsored players, a massive thank you to all concerned. Pound for pound Swinton Lions fans are the best in the sport bar none.”
Meanwhile, coach Stuart Littler has praised the impact of the club’s new performance analysis tools with partnerships with AnalysisPro.
“We are a part-time professional Championship Rugby League club, so we have to ensure we operate within sensible budgets, but also meet specific time frames regarding accessibility to players due to their work commitments and the balance of everyday family life. 2020 was of course an exceptional year, and one in which the season was cancelled for the first time in our lifetimes.
“Within our latest annual review, our performance team highlighted that our performance analysis tools could be more efficient and effective – hence our decision to partner with AnalysisPro.
“As a performance team, we are delighted with the current impact from all the new tools we have purchased from AnalysisPro. The support from all the partners involved is second to none and any minor issues have been cleared up with both speed and efficiency.”
SHEFFIELD EAGLES star Anthony Thackeray admits that the squad feels “more separated” with a lack of social off-field activities but praised the coaching staff as Mark Aston and the rest of his team have adapted to the Covid-19 situation.
“It has been strange,” Thackeray said.
“We had the phased return which was bizarre as we were all in small groups.
“We’re more separated and with the new lads coming in, that’s not been the best as we do need to get to know them all.
“We’ve not had any social events off the field and training has been a mixed bag, especially after being stood down for a few days.
“It’s all been a bit hit and miss but we are getting into our stride and the intensity has been ramped up now which is great.
“We have Tubbs (Aston), Keith (Senior) and Ged (Corcoran) who have been mixing between groups and then the conditioning and backroom all helping out too, its good.
“Gym work has been in small groups but BXF, where we have been doing the work, have been great with us.
“It’s managed really well but it just isn’t the normal we are all use to and have had to adapt.”
Meanwhile, the club’s Commercial Manager Mark Hannigan has praised the club’s sponsors for their support during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite the suspension of last season’s Championship season, the club’s sponsors have decided to stay with the Eagles.
“It has been tough and we have to thank our major sponsors who have stuck with us through this time,” Hannigan said
“They have been really positive and committed for 2021 so we can’t do anything but thank them.
“They are essential to us and have showed there are still positives to be taken by getting involved in professional sport at this time.”
Meanwhile, Hannigan announced that the Eagles have joined Sheffield’s Chamber of Commerce as a senior member saying that they “are looking to forge a brilliant relationship with them, as we have done with the Barnsley and Rotherham Chamber of Commerce.
“We do have a profile, we have a World Cup coming to the city in 2021, and we need to show businesses that if they get involved with us, it will help them going forward.”
On the pitch, Hannigan is hoping the club can continue on from the success of 2019’s 1895 Cup victory and put in a strong league campaign in 2021.
“We’d love that success every day of the week,” he continued.
“It’s all directly linked and the process of being involved in professional sport is that the business feeds the rugby, and the success feeds the business.
“It all goes hand in hand so the better we do on the pitch, the more we can attract off the pitch.”
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE coach Sylvain Houles believes it will be a team effort that earns his side promotion to Super League and not the efforts of individuals.
The French team have caught the eye with their recruitment ahead of this year’s campaign with the likes of Joseph Paulo and Dominique Peyroux joining from St Helens and Rémi Casty from neighbours Catalans Dragons but despite those big names and their long list of achievements, Houles knows it is about performing as a team.
“We have 24 very good players,” he told League Express.
“I really believe in all of our players and they can achieve big this season.
“We’ve had a long pre-season. We still have a lot to do but we’ve got players who have won Challenge Cups, Super League and the World Club Challenge and we have players who have won the French Championship and Cup so we have a very good players out there.
“But we need to have everyone out there is performing to make sure we achieve our goal to make Super League. It’s in our hands to make it and we really believe it will be a team effort to come out strong.”
LONDON BRONCOS halfback James Meadows is looking forward to a promotion challenge with his side in 2021.
The former academy star believes he is ready to start games in the capital and is excited to get down to work for his coach Danny Ward.
“I want to be a big part of what we do this year and feel like I have grown a lot physically so I am just excited to do the job Wardy needs me to,” Meadows said.
“We have covered a lot of metres in the last 10 months so when we came back we hit the ground running and that has been really important. Mike was really good with us over the months of being away by making sure we knew what we had to do to stay fit.
“We have had a really good week and you can feel that it kicked up a level. It’s good to be back with all of the boys.”
“Now that we have the full squad training we have been able to get our combinations and stuff going so it is all progressing well.”
A man, who broke into Odsal Stadium in 2018, the former home of BRADFORD BULLS, has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a young offender’s institution.
Luke Linden, 18, who was in a gang of three, caused £20,000 worth of damage to a large touchscreen TV, doors and laptops.
The group also drank from spirit bottles sitting behind the bar in the lounge before stealing four iPads while leaving.
All three in the group wore gloves and facemasks but Linden was identified when he took his face covering off briefly and was caught on CCTV.
Linden was also sentenced for his part in a house burglary during which he stole the house owner’s car, a white Vauxhall Astra.
Linden was found guilty of taking the car without consent and entering as a trespasser with intent to steal as well as trespassing at Odsal and stealing the iPads.
Meanwhile, the Bulls themselves reported no Covid-19 cases last week, as they began contact training for the first time since pre-season was paused.
DEWSBURY RAMS have launched their own home workout scheme called the “Rams Rampage Club.”
The club are looking to stay as connected as possible with their fans during lockdown and to do this, the club are releasing ten different sessions to follow with Jon Magrin, Adam Ryder, Chris Annakin, Joe Martin and Bailey Liu all putting on sessions.
“This is another brilliant initiative from the club. Following on from our hugely successful Rampage club, I’m sure these workout videos will be a big hit,” said coach Lee Greenwood.
“There are plenty of home exercise videos about at the moment but I don’t recall seeing any specific to rugby, performed by professional players.
“This is a great way for us to engage with not just our local community and supporters but anyone around the world.
“Any junior (or adult!) can enjoy these sessions.”
So far, the club have shared a session with both Magrin, Ryder and Annakin with more to follow.
BATLEY BULLDOGS‘ Sporting Charitable Trust is still on the lookout for a volunteer Session Support Assistant.
The Trust works in partnership with the club with the aim of enhancing the local community and surrounding areas.
“We are starting a new project supporting men with mental health, with the aim to reduce escalation of mental health problems into something more serious,” a statement said.
“The project aims to act as a support network but also at improving fitness which in turn improves mental health.
“We are planning to run weekly walking, cycling and scooting sessions and are looking for Sessional Support Volunteers to support the Session Leaders.
“We would be particularly interested in hearing from any men who have experience of or training in mental health issues. Prior experience is not essential, as training will be provided if necessary before the project start date, which will be mid February.
“As this activity involves volunteering out in the community it is not currently suitable for anyone with an underlying health condition or for anyone who has been requested to isolate.
“We will be following the latest government guidance which currently allows formal support groups to meet with limited numbers and in Covid secure settings. The groups will run in the Batley, Chickenley and Thornhill areas.”
The YORK CITY KNIGHTS foundation have launched the ‘Monday Memories Club’ allowing fans to come together to reminisce remotely with a view to becoming face-to-face when lockdown restrictions are eased.
The first session took place last week and there are currently sessions scheduled every Monday in February for fans to discuss a variety of City Knights-related topics.
“Working with ‘Looking Back-CIC’ and ‘City of York Council’ the Foundation are pleased to announce the sessions which, once recent restrictions allow, will become a weekly fixture first online then in face to face meetings,” a statement said on York’s website.
“In the first few weeks there will be themed sessions with people asked to submit their favourite images, players, games, moments and memories which will then be used as talking points through the sessions.
“Some of the imagery supplied will be used in a fans vote to choose the graphics that will be installed in the concourse areas of the LNER stadium and in the Jim Bone room.”
FEATHERSTONE ROVERS have secured a partnership with Canadian food specialists Hale Food, who are based in Toronto, only a matter of months after the Wolfpack were told they would not be able to return to Super League in 2021 leaving the club in the wilderness.
The company’s Director, John Hale, a Featherstone fan by birth, will sponsor new signing Kris Welham and spoke of the delights of having Toronto in the Championship in recent years.
“After Toronto were promoted to the Championship the dream was alive, Featherstone were coming to town!,” Hale said.
“I wrote to Mark Campbell (club owner) and invited him to come and see what real Canadian people are like and what treasures there are in Ontario.
“A whole group of people were coming from the club, including Allan Agar, a true legend and gentleman of the game. Life doesn’t get much better than meeting these folks and spending time with them and showing them some of the places in Southern Ontario that I am proud to call home.
“Better still, Featherstone were the first ever team to turn over the Wolfpack in the league, which was a fantastic victory for which we should all be proud.
“One thing we learn as adopted Canadians is – never forget where you came from, give back to your community and in that way, you will know where you are going, and you are always there to help people.”
WIDNES VIKINGS have formalised their first-team staff positions ahead of the Championship season in 2021.
Simon Finnigan, head coach, is heading into his first campaign in charge of the Vikings after joining from Newcastle Thunder last year and will be assisted by Ryan O’Brien, a former Vikings academy player.
O’Brien has held a full-time position with the club since 2016 when he joined as Youth Performance Manager and was most recently Head of Youth Performance in 2019.
Meanwhile, Neil Belshaw and Kellen Wood have joined the Vikings as support staff for the first team.
Belshaw had coached within the Wales youth setup as well as St Helens and Widnes’ academy.
Current Liverpool John Moores student, Wood, will help the club generate data to help enhance the coaching staff to make objective and informed performance related decisions.
The club also brought in Kieran Oates in the new year to be the Strength and Conditioning coach.
The highly anticipated annual Law Cup match between OLDHAM and Rochdale will have to wait another year as Covid-19 restrictions have made it impossible to stage the match.
The Hornets can only begin contact training midway through March leaving very few options before Oldham start their campaign in the Challenge Cup on March 21.
“Because we are in different divisions with different start dates both for playing and training, we are faced by complications that we don’t normally have,” Oldham Chairman Chris Hamilton said.
“Following discussions with Hornets, we have had to reluctantly agree jointly to put the Law Cup on hold for this year and to aim for a game on our home ground in 2022 when we hope the sporting world will be in a better position and we will be able to have fans inside the ground cheering on their teams.”
Meanwhile, League Express understands former Oldham and Keighley star Emmerson Whittel, who is currently playing in Australia with Rockingham Sharks in the NRLWA, is training with Newtown Jets to earn a deal in a higher division.
The Jets play in the NSW Cup, a step down from the NRL, and Whittel, who was named as Rockingham’s most consistent player in 2020, is hoping to earn a deal with Newtown for 2021.
WHITEHAVEN, upon their return to contact training last week, provided only negative Covid-19 tests as their squad was tested prior to the session.
‘Haven and the rest of the Championship are set to begin their campaign and have now completed their first week of training both in the gym and not socially distanced without a hitch.
Meanwhile, the club are looking for a buyer for their old trophy cabinet after a refurbishment of their boardroom.
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