Barrow Raiders chairman Steve Neale believes it could be a two horse race between his club and Newcastle Thunder as to who get’s promoted to the Championship.
With one Championship club moving up to become the 12th team in Super League following the demise of Toronto Wolfpack, it means a League 1 club now gets the same chance to step up and see the second-tier remain as a 14-team competition, leaving League 1 with 10 teams and therefore no bye weekends.
Barrow competed in the Championship in 2019 but were one of two teams relegated at the end of that season.
Similarly with the application process for the Championship clubs, League 1 outfits will receive criteria for their own applications this week.
While Neale is an admirer of the work Thunder have been doing in the North East, he feels his club also ticks all the boxes that are likely to be asked of them.
“There may be other teams that throw their hat in the ring, but I think it will be a shoot out between us and Newcastle,” Neale said.
“Newcastle are also a great team that are doing a lot of great work too so it’s a shame we both can’t go up.
“But I feel we’re a lot more advanced than Newcastle.
“We’ve been around for 150 years and have a solid community club foundation with eight really strong local amateur clubs in the area, that have all got strong structures beneath them.
“We’ve got our our player pathways in place and from there four of our players have turned professional in the last few years.
“Although Newcastle are doing a lot of development work, we’re already established in that area.
“We also have greater crowds than every other League 1 club and on a playing side we were really unlucky to go down in 2019. We had some decisions go against us and were really unlucky with injuries.
“We were going really well in 2020 and have really strengthened the squad even more with Shaun Lunt, Ben Harrison and Adam Walne, so we certainly wouldn’t be out of place in the Championship.
“We have a lot of stability in the squad and the club so there are lots of reasons I believe we are the best candidate.
“It’s great to see that all the hard work we’ve been putting in over the last few years has put us in this position.”
NEWCASTLE THUNDER will see the return of the “Mac” in 2021, as prop forward Liam McAvoy re-joins the club for the new season.
The Cumbrian returns to the Thunder front row after spending a year experiencing life in Australia and joins Bob Beswick, Matty Wright and Lewis Young as confirmed members of the 2021 squad.
Originally joining from Workington at the start of 2017, the 27-year-old has been a stand out player with an impressive tackle rate seeing him regularly topping 50 per game and high energy levels allowing him to enjoy a high amount of game minutes.
With 74 appearances to his name in the purple, black and gold, McAvoy also brings a wealth of experience from almost 100 appearances in the Championship and is certain to continue to set high standards in the upcoming campaign.
McAvoy said: I’m very happy to be signing back with Newcastle Thunder again for 2021. It’s an exciting time to be at the club with Denis (Betts) and everyone behind the scenes pushing it in the right direction and I’m sure we’ve every chance for success next season.
“I’m just back from Australia, where I trained with the Newcastle Knights cup side and I learned a lot from how they do things down there.
“I can’t thank Todd Edwards at Cessnock Goannas enough for getting me that opportunity and Tony Gleeson for the experience before the pandemic put a stop to everything.
“I’m buzzing to get back into it again with the Thunder boys and bringing those experiences from the last 12 months into pre-season and the 2021 campaign.
Meanwhile, director of rugby Denis Betts has said he will purposely leave open some spaces in the squad ahead of the new season kicking off.
“We’ve still got people to add and things to build on, but we have a core of 17 or 18 players in place,” said Betts.
“They were around us and on the books last year and we’ve also picked up a couple of other young kids that are going to come in from some Super League Academies.
“We’re getting there but I am cautious of the fact that there is still a long way to go before the season starts and a lot of people are going to be in and out of work and looking for opportunities.
“We don’t want to be filling our quota up too quickly and then find someone we’re really excited about being involved with becoming available but don’t have the room for them.
“If the right person is there we’ll sign them, but if not we’ll take our time to get the right people in.
“At the moment though, until Super League finishes, things settle down and we know exactly what is happening next year and have something definite in place, it’s still difficult to get into the nitty gritty and get everything nailed down.”
WEST WALES RAIDERS coach Aaron Wood believes he may have one of the best half back combinations in the competition next year and admits he can’t wait to see them in action.
The Llanelli-based club shocked many Rugby League supporters in September when they announced the signing of former British and Irish Lions star Gavin Henson. This was followed just weeks later when former Man of Steel and Albert Goldthorpe medal winner Rangi Chase joined the club.
The two will form the Raiders halfback pairing in 2021 – a combination Wood is excited to watch.
“Rangi and Gavin playing alongside each other will be something special to witness and I don’t think you’ll see a combination like that again in League 1,” said Wood.
“There will be some special moments from that pair that people will want to see.
“It will be great to see what they can do, but as I have been telling all the lads, they won’t be able to play together and perform, unless the rest of the team are going forward. So the forward pack will really have to stand up for them so that they can play off the back of that.
“A lot of the guys who have been here through all the ups and downs have always said we needed to get half backs in. They are key positions.
“But not many ever come on the market, so when these two became available, we had a chat and been great we’ve been able to get them in.
“All the boys are pumped and excited to have them here.
“It’s the first time in club’s history that we’re getting this calibre of player down here and everyone is really keen to improve their own game by being around them.”
NORTH WALES CRUSADERS coach Anthony Murray is not anticipating the club returning to full training until after the New Year, but he is hopeful that there will be increased interactivity between his squad before that.
“As soon as we find out the definite format for when we are starting next year things will be a bit clearer,” said Murray.
“If we do go down the route of starting the Cup in March and then the league in April and things ease in December after this lockdown then we can start looking at starting something.
“If it is going to be a March/April start then we’ll probably be looking at getting back in for training in January, but we can’t plan anything for definite yet.
“Fingers crossed as we move into December some of the guidelines are relaxed a bit, as it would be nice if we can get back together in small groups and do something. It would be good as well for everyone’s mental health and well being to catch up with each other and have some social interaction with their team mates.
“I just want to get back to training and some normality but we just have to wait and see.”
One player who will be linking up with the squad again whenever they do start training is Callum Hazzard, who spent 2019 on loan at the club from St Helens.
The 21-year-old went on to make his Super League debut after spending time with the Crusaders, but he has now returned to the club on a permanent basis ahead of the 2021 campaign.
“We’re delighted to have Callum back with us,” said Murray.
“He was fantastic for us in 2019 and the fact Saints handed him his Super League debut shows the difference he made while he was at Crusaders.
“Callum has a very bright future ahead of him so his signing is another step in the right direction for us.”
HUNSLET have added some international experience to their squad for next year in the shape of halfback Jy-Mel Coleman and outside back Aaron Jones-Bishop.
Coleman has recently returned to his Yorkshire roots having spent much of the past decade playing for London Skolars alongside, and then under his brother – Jermaine Coleman.
He has also had spells with Newcastle Thunder, York City Knights and Keighley Cougars so knows the competition well.
Leeds-born Jones-Bishop has now fully recovered from a serious knee injury sustained whilst playing for Oldham in 2019 and is ready to get his career back on track.
The club have also signed 22-year-old forward Lewis Wray from Keighley Cougars.
“Jy-Mel is a vastly experienced and proven halfback at League 1 level, and he will be a great addition to our squad,” said Hunslet coach Gary Thornton.
“This gives us three quality halfbacks and provides plenty of attacking options and flexibility, which suits the way we want to play.
“He can also cover hooker or loose forward, which gives us the added benefit of covering a number of key positions.
“Aaron is desperate to get back to fitness and prove his worth.
“He has been around League 1 for a few years now so has plenty of experience at this level.
“I’ve coached him before at Doncaster and I know his professional attitude will be a good fit for our group and our environment. He also gives us some flexibility as he can play centre and wing equally as well.
“He is very athletic and strong, returns the ball really well, and will be a great addition to our already potent backline.”
“Lewis is joining us highly recommended from within the game, with a fantastic attitude and desire to learn and improve himself, and he will be a valuable addition to the squad.
“He can play front row and back row, so offers some utility value and cover across the pack.”
WORKINGTON TOWN have once again gone local when adding to their squad for 2021 by handing a first professional contract to Millom prospect Ethan Bickerdike.
The utility back, who has represented Cumbria at Under 16, 17 and 19, has signed a two-year deal at Derwent Park.
“Ethan has a lot of great attributes,” said Town coach Chris Thorman.
“He has good core skill, speed and has a really nice balance to his game.
“He was on the dual registration agreement with Millom last season, but I felt he showed so many good signs that we needed to tie him down on an official contract.
“I’m really excited to work with and help improve Ethan, as I genuinely believe he can be a real asset for us in the future.
“It’s another positive sign from the club in signing one of the best youngsters in the county.”
It was a case of one in, one out at KEIGHLEY COUGARS last year with Matthew Bailey signing a new one year deal and utility back Jordan Aitchison being released from the remaining year of his contract.
Bailey himself was initially released by the club after the curtailed 2020 season, but discussions with coach Rhys Lovegrove over the last few weeks has seen a u-turn.
“I’m really happy that Bails has decided to stay with the club,” said Lovegrove.
“He offers us a lot of experience and a well-rounded game which will suit the systems that I am implementing, and like playing, here at the club.
“I am now excited to see how Matt rises to the challenge of the 2021 season.”
Meanwhile 27 year-old Aitchison has had a run of bad luck since rejoining the club in 2019 after a short spell with Hemel Stags.
A hamstring injury sustained in only his second game of the season ended his year prematurely before a routine heart screening ahead of the 2020 season picked up a previously undiagnosed condition.
This was operated on and Aitchison went on to make a full recovery while the season came to an abrupt halt in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Following discussions between the player and Lovegrove, it was decided the club would part ways with the product of their former scholarship and reserve programmes.
ROCHDALE HORNETS have, as anticipated in League Express, brought Danny Yates back to the club two years after leaving Hornets due to financial difficulties.
The half back has since been with Batley Bulldogs and Hornets chairman Andy Mazey is delighted to welcome the 26-year-old back to the club.
“When we got relegated and had fallen on hard times financially, Danny left to stay in the Championship,” explained Mazey.
“Matt was keen to straighten his options and Danny is a tried and tested Championship player so it’s great we have been able to get something done with him.”
Meanwhile, the club have also now officially launched ‘All Hornets’, the new Supporters Association club, which will host a number of events when safe to do so, as well as supporting the club with fundraising and through the Squad Builder.
To find out more or to get in touch, contact Allhornetsrochdale@gmail.com.
DONCASTER have kept it in the family by signing the son of a former player.
20-year-old Castleford Tigers academy product, Josef Fella has agreed a one year deal with the club.
His father Tony played 17 games for the Dons in the 2001 season, scoring two tries.
“Joe was brought to our attention by Castleford and I’m really pleased to bring him to the club,” said chief executive Carl Hall.
“I look forward to working with him and wish him all the best in a Dons shirt.”
LONDON SKOLARS coach Jermaine Coleman has said the latest Coronavirus lockdown hasn’t hit his pre-season plans too hard just yet.
“We had hoped to get a little bit of work done in December so we could start the new year with a bit of work under our belts, but that might all change now given we’re back in lockdown,” said Coleman.
“It is another frustrating setback, but we probably all knew this was coming but hoped it wouldn’t. It means we’re just having to wait again for now but hopefully we can get some sessions done soon.
“The fact that we’re probably not going to be starting the season until March or April meant we weren’t going to be starting our pre-season properly until January anyway.
“If we’d planned to start in November as normal and then faced a four or five month pre-season, by the time the games came around the guys would be getting fed up of rugby and wanting to get away from it. So it was always going to be a later start.
“We’d planned to get a couple of fun sessions in in December just to touch base with each other again and get a ball in our hands for the first time in months, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
COVENTRY BEARS head coach Richard Squires know he will face a balancing act during the early stages of pre-season due to the on-going disruption caused by Coronavirus.
“Pre-season is going to be a slow burner,” admitted Squires.
“If the league season doesn’t start until April it does give us a long period of time to prepare for it.
“Anything we can do up until Christmas it will be quite aerobic and with not too much contact. The boys haven’t taken a tackle for going on eight or nine months so we need to take that slowly.
“We’re just going to have to bide our time with them and do a lot of prehab and rehab work.
“A lot of the early sessions going to be weening the boys back into it. But at the same time we do need to do that at a high level to get to where we need to be. So have to use our time wisely.
“We’ll only be able to train with each other twice a week so the onus will still be on them to keep up their training away from the club, but everyone else is going to be in the same position as us.
“We’ve planned our work though so that we approach pre-season in the way we want to.”
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