Championship Focus: Reach for the stars

“This is one of the most significant signings in our history, for the Championship and for rugby league in this country.”

That was how Featherstone Chairman Mark Campbell announced two-time Dally M Centre of the Year Joey Leilua’s head-turning capture by the club last week.

Leilua’s recruitment is undoubtedly a massive one. But it’s not the only example of a star name arriving at a club outside Super League since 1996. Here are five other examples of clubs at this level pushing the boat out for big-name signings.

February 1996 – Garry Schofield – Leeds to Huddersfield

At the onset of the summer era, ambition in the second tier was arguably at its peak, which was clearly illustrated by Huddersfield paying a club record £135,000 for Leeds captain Garry Schofield on the eve of the new season. Described as a “surprise swoop” in the Rothmans Yearbook of that season, it saw one of the sport’s biggest names drop out of the top tier to lead the Giants’ promotion push in that 1996 campaign. League Express’ very own columnist scored 55 points in 16 games for Huddersfield, but Steve Ferres’ side could only finish fifth, behind champions Salford, Keighley, Hull FC and Featherstone. Schofield stayed on as they secured promotion the following year alongside the Black and Whites.

June 2003 – Tommy Martyn – St Helens to Leigh

Maverick stand-off Tommy Martyn was still very much a Super League star when he left St Helens mid-season to join Leigh’s promotion push. Certainly, Saints coach Ian Millward didn’t want to lose him at the time. Millward said: “I’m extremely disappointed that Tommy has taken the decision to leave the club now rather than play out the remainder of this season at Saints. But I suppose Tommy is looking out for his long-term future in the game and we just wish him well in that.” The Centurions missed out on promotion to an excellent Huddersfield team but, like Schofield, Martyn stayed on and was successful the following year, scoring a try in the Grand Final win over Whitehaven before announcing his retirement.

December 2004 – James Webster – Parramatta to Hull KR

It was a clear statement of intent for Hull KR’s Super League ambitions when they brought NRL halfback James Webster to the club for the 2005 season. Webster had played over 30 matches in Australia when he joined the Robins, making a two try debut against Keighley. Webster actually coached the team alongside playing that year, following the departure of Harvey Howard, and steered them to a shock Northern Rail Cup Final win over Castleford. Although they missed out on promotion to the Tigers, they were successful the following year under Justin Morgan, with Webster the National League One Player of the Year.

November 2014 – Fuifui Moimoi – Parramatta Eels to Leigh

Cult hero Fuifui Moimoi was another player still featuring at the very top when he arrived in the second tier of the British game, having established himself as one of the sport’s biggest names in over a decade at Parramatta Eels. He landed at a Leigh club again, chasing their top flight dream and became an instant favourite with the Centurions’ supporters. “I love the smash,” Moimoi said when signing. “I love to get hit and challenge the other team and players and see who’s the strongest and most skilful in my position.” Seven years on and now in his 40s, he’s still doing that at Rochdale.

October 2018 – Jon Wilkin – St Helens to Toronto Wolfpack

Big-name signings were hardly a rarity for Toronto as they sought to fly up through the divisions, but none came with the pedigree of Jon Wilkin before they eventually secured their Super League status. The former Hull KR, St Helens and Great Britain backrower was brought in to add experience and quality to the Wolfpack’s 2019 promotion bid, having just missed out to London Broncos in their first Million Pound Game. Wilkin played his part as they went up by beating Featherstone Rovers a year later, although sadly he is now one of many players owed significant amounts by the Canadian club following their dramatic demise.

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