By Lorraine Marsden and Doug Thomson
Craig Hall says Featherstone are ready to take up where they left off as they aim to book a top-flight place for the first time since 1995.
The experienced fullback was just seven years old when Rovers missed the cut for Super League as Rugby League moved from winter to summer.
This time last year, with Hall freshly signed from Hull KR, James Webster’s side were among the favourites to claim promotion from the Championship.
Featherstone duly won four out of four league games, plus two more in the Challenge Cup to book a sixth-round derby trip to Wakefield, before Covid scuppered the campaign.
Beaten by Toronto in the 2019 Championship promotion decider, Rovers also lost out as Leigh won the battle of the bids to replace the Wolfpack in this year’s Super League.
“We were disappointed not to get the nod, but Leigh were judged to have made the best case, so we’ll just have to do it this time,” said Hall.
“The positive is that by the end of the season, we’ll hopefully have fans back in the grounds, and the aim is to win promotion in front of our supporters.”
Featherstone have made significant additions to their squad, including Samoa international halfback or hooker Fa’amanu Brown, who has played in the NRL.
Also incoming are former Super League stars Kris Welham, from Salford, Junior Moors (Castleford) and Craig Kopczak (Wakefield).
“I think we had a good squad last season,” said Hall, who played in all six matches before lockdown, scoring three tries.
“Now we’ve added to it with some quality and some experience, and the desire to get the job done is definitely there.
“It won’t be easy, because there have been lots of good signings throughout the Championship, and there’s only one promotion place.
“But we’re confident that we have what’s needed, and it’s a case of trying to get some consistency, both individually and as a team.”
Head coach Webster is hopeful former Leeds secondrower Brett Ferres will have recovered from a foot operation in time to face visitors Bradford in the Challenge Cup on Sunday, March 21.
Rovers have a home pre-season game against Batley on Saturday.
OLDHAM coach Matt Diskin believes his team will be a much tougher proposition post-pandemic than they were before coronavirus created havoc last season.
The former Batley boss took the reins after Scott Naylor signed off a seven-year stint at the helm by guiding the Roughyeds to promotion via League 1 play-off success in 2019.
His hastily-assembled side won only one out of five second-tier matches before the 2020 season was curtailed.
They were tough times – but former Leeds and Bradford hooker Diskin learned a lot about his existing players, and was also able to pinpoint the areas of the squad which needed particular attention.
“We were nailed-on favourites for relegation last season, and to be fair, I couldn’t disagree,” he said.
“I suppose if there is a positive from not playing for so long, it’s that myself and (chairman) Chris Hamilton were able to have a really good look at what we needed to do in terms of bringing in new players, and also find out who was available.”
There have been 13 new arrivals at Bower Fold, the most recent former Castleford hooker Dec Gregory, and Diskin, whose side host Halifax on Saturday after visiting Featherstone in the first of their two warm-up matches, said: “Chris has backed me to the hilt, and I’m pleased with what we have done.
“We already had some good players, and we’ve been able to add to that core with a mixture of experience and younger lads who are keen to progress in the game, and I now have options throughout the squad to create competition and provide cover.
“It might be difficult to keep everyone happy, but my job is to win games, and match by match, I’ll pick the 17 I believe have the best chance of doing that.
“The Championship is tough, but we’re not just thinking about survival, we want to push on and try to climb as high up the table as we can.”
Diskin is keeping close tabs on versatile back Cameron Leeming, who has a hamstring problem.
WHITEHAVEN coach Gary Charlton is keeping close tabs on three players as he plans for the West Cumbria club’s sole pre-season outing.
Haven will make the cross-country trip along the A69 to Newcastle to face the Championship new boys at Kingston Park on Sunday.
It will be the only run-out before the Challenge Cup first-round tie against Dewsbury at the Recreation Ground six days later on Saturday, March 20.
The Yorkshire side are also Haven’s first league opponents, this time at the Rams Stadium, on Saturday, April 3.
Long-serving backrow Connor Holliday (hamstring), Kiwi scrum-half Nikau Williams (back) and his fellow new arrival, Aussie prop Ryan King (knee), all have what Charlton describes as “little niggles”.
Williams, 21, has played for Newtown Jets in Australia as well as having spells in the Under 20 sides at NRL clubs Melbourne and Canterbury.
King, 23, has been in the development systems of Sydney Roosters and Cronulla, and like Williams, has signed a one-year deal.
Charlton explained: “There are no major worries about the three of them, it’s just a case of making sure they don’t aggravate anything.
“It’s a pretty much inevitable part of returning to training after the long lay-off that we’ve had due to the pandemic that these little niggles will occur.
“However much players maintain their fitness levels, getting back into drills and contact work has an effect, because it’s a step up for them.
“We’re keeping a close eye on all the lads, and while I want to field as strong a side as possible at Newcastle, it would be pointless taking any risks.”
WIDNES VIKINGS coach Simon Finnigan is more than happy with the condition of his players as the countdown to the eagerly-awaited new campaign continues.
The Vikings head to West Wales Raiders in the first round of the Challenge Cup on Sunday, March 21, with a home tie against Whitehaven or Dewsbury the following weekend up for grabs.
Then in the league opener on Easter Sunday, April 4, Finnigan makes a quick return to Newcastle, the club he left after two seasons at the helm to succeed Tim Sheens at Widnes.
The 39-year-old former Vikings player admits the first pre-season since the pandemic struck has been “different” and has brought issues coaches haven’t had to face before, one of them being his decision not to play any warm-up games.
“There’s been a number of unknowns to factor in, for instance whether or not to play friendlies, and only time will tell whether I’ve made the right call,” he explained.
“I just felt the season is going to be busy enough, and the Challenge Cup provided an opportunity to step things up, although we’re in no way taking the competition lightly.
“But I’m happy with the conditions the players are in currently – I have to say I’m impressed with the way they have looked after themselves during lockdown – and I think we can do the necessary contact work in training.
“We have no injury concerns at the moment, and my desire to go into the West Wales game with a full squad to select from was another consideration in the decision on not playing friendlies.”
Finnigan says his new signings Paul Clough (from Huddersfield), Matt Cook (Castleford), Steve Tyrer (Halifax), Lee Jewitt (Barrow) and Adam Lawton (Newcastle) have settled well and will each add something to the squad.
“We’re talking about people who have been in Super League and have seen most things in the game,” he added.
“They will not only make their own contribution as players, but also on the group as a whole, and I’ve already seen that in training.
“For the stage of pre-season we are at, we are in a good place, and I sense the eagerness to get into competitive rugby once again.”
BRADFORD BULLS coach John Kear believes clubs across the Championship and Super League can play their part in helping League 1 sides prepare for the new season, while at the same time continuing to develop younger players.
The third-tier campaign doesn’t begin until May, with the two divisions above returning to action much sooner.
While the Bulls take on Keighley in a warm-up game on Saturday, it could be increasingly difficult for League 1 sides to arrange friendlies other than against other teams in their own division.
“I don’t know if the RFL would allow it, but we’d certainly be open to letting some of our fringe players play a friendly against a League 1 side, even after our season has started,” said Kear.
“We’ve actually already been contacted by Coventry and asked if we would do that, and I would be more than willing to.
“I love this game, and the players who play it love this game. I don’t want to lose players from the game simply because there is no Reserve competition this year and they can’t play.
“So if we can manufacture friendly games against whoever, I’d try and do it to keep players playing.
“League 1 clubs have still got a lot of preparation to do before May and it would be good if Super League teams could give their fringe players some game time against those teams too.
“It’s okay for players to be training, but if all they’re doing is going to the gym and being out on field doing running drills, skill drills and structure drills, without actually putting it into practice, it’s heartbreaking
“We have got to find a way of keeping players playing, and this would be a great way to do it.”
Connor Bailey believes Championship new boys NEWCASTLE THUNDER can hold their own in the division.
The ambitious North-East club have stepped up to fill the vacancy created by Leigh’s elevation to Super League.
It will be Thunder’s first season in the second tier since 2009, when they were known as Gateshead.
Halfback Bailey has joined up with new head coach Eamon O’Carroll’s beefed-up squad on a season-long loan from Wakefield, for whom he made five Super League appearances last year.
And having trained at Kingston Park for the last four weeks after recovering from an ankle niggle, he’s already seen enough to be optimistic about new-look Newcastle meeting their fresh challenge.
“I’ve settled in well and been made to feel welcome, and I can’t wait for the season to come around,” said Bailey, whose side host Whitehaven in a pre-season match on Sunday.
“I’m lucky because I got to play a few games last year, but the lads who didn’t are really keen to get going again.
“Obviously it’s going to be a step up for the club, and we’ll be up against some really strong, experienced sides, but the recruitment has been good, and there’s a fair bit of experience in the squad.
“The coach is very clear about what we will face this season, our roles and what is expected of us as individuals and as a team.
“While we’re not stepping up to make up the numbers, we’re not making any wild predictions either, but I certainly believe we should be trying to finish in the top half of the table, and that it is a realistic target.
“It’s a big season for the club, because there are aspirations to progress over the forthcoming years, with Super League the eventual goal, and this year is about laying foundations.
“And with Magic Weekend coming back and the World Cup approaching, it’s a big year for Rugby League in Newcastle, so we want to play our part.”
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE are awaiting RFL clarification over the logistics of their Championship campaign.
Changes to the regulations over quarantine for elite sports teams returning to the UK from France have sparked concern among rival second-tier clubs, particularly over the implications for part-time players.
London Broncos are the first side due to visit France, on Saturday, April 17.
Toulouse head to Catalans Dragons for a warm-up match on Saturday.
YORK CITY KNIGHTS coach James Ford could not be happier with the way pre-season has gone so far.
After an opposed training session against Leeds, the club finally return to match action on Thursday, when Super League side Hull travel for the first Rugby League match at the new LNER Community Stadium.
“Covid or no Covid, this is the best pre-season we’ve had while I’ve been at the club,” said the man who took the helm in January 2015.
“We are intentionally fitter based on how the game looks like it’s going to change with the new rules, such as six again.
“There is also more clarity around the squad on our philosophy of play and our systems, and that’s down to the players.
“They have really ripped in and taken ownership of what they’ve been doing and that has taken our preparations to a new level.”
BATLEY BULLDOGS coach Craig Lingard has praised the attitude of all his players since their return to training earlier this year.
“I have noticed a real change, and that’s because the players have really missed it,” said Lingard, whose side follow-up their game against neighbours Dewsbury with another warm-up match, this time at Featherstone, on Saturday.
“It’s normally difficult to get them up for pre-season because they know it’s going to be a long, tough grind when they have usually only had five or six weeks off.
“But because they have been out for so long, they just want to be back. It’s not just the Rugby League aspect, it’s being part of a team and the camaraderie and banter.
“People underestimate how important that is. Rugby League training is not just about the physical aspect, it’s a mental thing as well.”
DEWSBURY RAMS chairman Mark Sawyer hopes Heavy Woollen Rugby League fans helped make light of the cost of staging the Rams’ opening warm-up match against Batley.
The neighbours met at the Bulldogs’ Fox’s Biscuits Stadium home on Saturday, with supporters able to pay to watch the derby live via OurLeague.
The clubs agreed in advance to split any profit from the match, which replaced the normal Boxing Day friendly.
Sawyer said: “It’s not easy for us asking people to pay for streaming, but it’s beneficial to both clubs, and there were costs to making the match Covid-compliant.”
The sides are due to meet at the Tetley’s Stadium in round seven of the Championship on Sunday, May 23 – potentially the first game after supporters are allowed back in grounds.
Dewsbury will head to Wakefield for a second warm-up game on Sunday.
SWINTON LIONS hope staging a full-scale training match at Heywood Road will prove as helpful to the club’s backroom staff as it did to coach Stuart Littler and his players.
The Lions will be back at the ground for their Challenge Cup first-round meeting with Newcastle on Sunday, March 21.
Operations director Steve Wild explained: “The exercise was not just a significant step forward for Stuart and his players and staff in preparing for a full return to action, it was also a key off-field exercise as we prepare for the Newcastle game.
“The Covid rules and regulations are understandably lengthy and complex, so therefore to have a dry run was extremely useful. Happily things went well both on and off the pitch, with no major glitches.”
LONDON BRONCOS captain Will Lovell believes carrying the late Matt King’s name on the first-team kit this season will provide a fitting tribute to the club’s former Academy player.
King, who gained a law degree and became an inspirational speaker after being left paralysed and unable to breathe independently by a spinal injury sustained as a 17-year-old, last month died aged 33 after suffering heart failure.
His injury led to the creation of the RL Benevolent Fund, which supports Rugby League players in need.
His name will be carried on the inside of the shirt collar, and Lovell said: “Matt was an inspiring man who will be missed by everyone at the club.”
HALIFAX PANTHERS have appointed former Wigan, Harlequins and Great Britain player Chris Melling as head physiotherapist while Nick Taylor, who has worked at Bradford and Hunslet as well as with the England squad, will lead the medical department.
Coach Simon Grix explained: “Chris was part of the medical team at Warrington after finishing a very good playing career. I wanted him in but had to wait for his work commitments to allow.
“Nick is also a welcome addition, working in sport over the last few years. He, like Chris, has made an immediate impression on the group and is here to improve himself and us.”
SHEFFIELD EAGLES coach Mark Aston says a string of youthful new recruits, the most recent former London Broncos centre Max Clarke, 21, have brought fresh energy to his squad.
“What you get with kids is enthusiasm and commitment and their jaws are dropping when they’re learning more about the club, what we have done in the past and where we are going in the future,” he said.
“We all know they are not the finished articles, but they have got the right values and they want to be here for the long haul so they can develop.”
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