Championship Focus: Three-way split as separate battles take shape in second tier

From top to bottom, there are fascinating contests developing in the Championship.

After 15 of 27 rounds (other than for Batley and Sheffield, who have yet to play their fixture at the Fox’s Biscuits Stadium, which was postponed amid the February storms) there are three groups within the 14-strong table.

Three points separate Barrow, who currently occupy the sixth and final play-off place, and their nearest rivals Bradford.

And there’s the same gap between eleventh-placed Whitehaven and London Broncos, who are a point above a drop zone occupied by Dewsbury and Workington.

Two of the bottom three have parted company with the coaches who started the season, with Jermaine Coleman leaving London and Lee Greenwood departing Dewsbury.

Long-serving head of performance Mike Eccles is in interim charge of the Broncos, who, having pushed York close, picked up their second win of the season by defeating Dewsbury for the second time, and leapfrogging their hosts in the process.

The Wimbledon side have one point more courtesy of their draw at Barrow back in March.

Dewsbury, who are two points above Workington, the last team they beat, by a single point at home seven games ago, last week appointed their former halfback Liam Finn in succession to Greenwood on a contract through to 2023.

It’s a tough maiden head-coach’s gig for the 38-year-old ex-Ireland international, but he has gained valuable experience working at Wakefield, then Halifax, the first two clubs he played for in a 20-year career.

Workington, who weren’t sure whether they’d be playing in the second or third tier until October 10, when they beat Doncaster in the League One play-off final and were therefore behind the eight-ball when it came to building a squad for the current campaign, have it all to do to get out of trouble. But, of course, it’s not mission impossible, particularly given that they still have to play the Broncos (away on Sunday, August 14) and Dewsbury (at home seven days later).

But the immediate focus is on round 16 on Sunday, when Workington head across the high North of England to Newcastle, Dewsbury make the short trip to Bradford in Finn’s first game and the Broncos visit Widnes, who will be under the interim control of Ryan O’Brien for the last time before the experienced John Kear takes the reins.

Meanwhile Whitehaven, who will be looking a little uncomfortably over their shoulders, host York, who will be chasing a fourth straight win and 13th in total as they try to stay in touch with the top two, Leigh and Featherstone.

There are plenty of matches, and plenty of potential pitfalls, to come, and of course promotion to Super League hinges on one match, the Million Pound Game, on the first weekend in October.

But there’s little doubt Leigh struck a psychological blow by beating Featherstone 32-12 in front of the Premier Sports cameras last Monday to go top of the table.

It was a second win over Rovers in just over a fortnight following the Centurions’ 30-16 success in the 1895 Cup final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Other than their 24-18 defeat at Hull KR in the sixth round of the Challenge Cup in March, Adrian Lam’s side have won all 17 of the other matches they have played since their 28-6 loss at Featherstone in round two.

With many changes made to the squad since last season’s relegation from Super League, Leigh were finding their feet back in February, and given the subsequent arrival of Krisnan Inu, Kai O’Donnell, Ben Nakubuwai and Blake Ferguson, three of whom are internationals and all with NRL experience, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the present squad put together by Lam and Chris Chester is significantly stronger than last year’s.

Quota constraints mean that should Leigh make it back to the top-flight for a fourth spell in the summer era, there will have to be more squad changes, but for the time being it’s, quite literally considering the power available to Lam, full steam ahead, with a trip to Sheffield on Friday the next assignment.

Of course Featherstone have a hugely-experienced and highly-successful coach in Brian McDermott, as well as a strong squad, and it’s going to be intriguing to see how they respond to their trans-Pennine setback.

McDermott’s charges host Batley, who are fourth and held Rovers to a 20-20 draw back in March, on Sunday.

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