Championship in the spotlight – part one

Toulouse’s progress brings Rugby League buzz
TOULOUSE coach Sylvain Houles (pictured) will send his promotion-chasing side into play-off action with the words: “Forget talk of pressure – enjoy the ride.”
Along with Featherstone, the table-toppers from France’s fourth-largest city (after Paris, Lyon and Marseille), enter the play-offs at Saturday’s semi-final stage, when they will host Batley Bulldogs.
Houles, whose team are favourites to claim the Super League spot up for grabs, is looking forward to the experience – and says his players should be too.
“We can write the biggest chapter in the history of the club, so there is pressure, but excitement too,” he told League Express.
“We want to enjoy it, to be in a position to live every moment and give everything to try to reach the final.”
After winning their final regular-season fixture at Newcastle (by a 82-12 margin), Olympique boast a 100 per cent record this year but have played only 13 times, all on English soil, due to the effect of Covid on travel to France (they were awarded a 24-0 home win over London Broncos).
They will have home advantage in the last-four tie, and if they win through, the Million Pound Game on Sunday week, October 10.
Saturday will mark their first appearance at the Stade Ernest Wallon, shared with the city’s European title-winning rugby union club, since March 2020, when Batley were beaten 34-14 in the last game of the regular season before the lockdown.
Houles’ squad have reacquainted themselves with the 18,000-capacity venue by training there, while the upcoming semi-final was publicised during Stade Toulousain’s home Top 14 union clash with ASM Clermont Auvergne.
“It will be great to finally play a home game and we want a big crowd, with union fans too, and there is a lot of buzz around the city,” added Houles.
“With Catalans winning the League Leaders’ Shield and involved in the Super League play-offs, there is a good feeling for the game of Rugby League in South-West France.
“Catalans fans have organised two buses to our game, and there is also interest from other places, and we are really grateful for the support.”

Rare weekend off has Rovers chief thinking hard
FEATHERSTONE ROVERS coach James Webster has called on his players to use the experience gained over a busy season to secure the 25th win which would put them within one more of promotion to Super League.
While Batley, Bradford, Halifax and Whitehaven were all involved in the play-off eliminators, it was a watching brief for the top two Toulouse and Rovers ahead of entering the play-offs at Saturday’s semi-final stage.
Weekends off have been a rarity for Featherstone, who have played 26 times in all competitions, suffering only two defeats – at home to Super League side Hull in the third round of the Challenge Cup and Toulouse in the league.
And Webster, who has been in charge since October 2019 and won 30 out of 32 competitive games in all, has put plenty of thought into the structure of training sessions since the 78-10 victory over Sheffield on the last day of the regular season as he awaits the arrival of Halifax on Saturday.
“Not having a game is not something we’ve encountered too often,” explained the Australian, who is aiming to go one better than the man he succeeded, compatriot Ryan Carr, who took Featherstone to the 2019 Million Pound Game, won by Toronto.
“That made it something to think carefully about, and we have tried to combine giving the boys a chance to rest and recuperate with making sure their bodies remain used to the physical contact of a match.”
Toulouse, who have a 100 per cent record this year, and Featherstone are firm favourites to win their respective semi-finals and set up a cross-Channel trip for the West Yorkshire side.
But Webster said: “We certainly won’t be taking anything for granted. We’ll have to work very hard if we are to get through, and that’s the way it should be.”
Featherstone’s season so far includes a semi-final victory over Widnes in the 1895 Cup, which they went in to win, and the team chief continued: “That was a really tough game, and we had to dig deep to find a way through. Hopefully that experience will benefit us.”
Rovers have two players, Craig Hall and James Harrison, in contention for the Championship Player of the Year award. Toulouse’s Johnathon Ford and Batley’s Tom Gilmore are also in the running.

Rams coach happy to wait for veteran’s verdict
DEWSBURY coach Lee Greenwood is waiting to see if Paul Sykes fancies a 24th season at senior level.
While his Rams halfback partner Liam Finn has called time on his career at the age of 37, the 40-year-old former Super League player is considering whether to go again next year.
Sykes, who has played five times for England and once for Great Britain, joined his hometown club Dewbsury in 2016 after being at Bradford, who gave him his first-team debut in 1999, London Broncos, Wakefield and Featherstone.
He has topped 400 career appearances and featured alongside Finn as Dewsbury beat Oldham 21-14 to complete their campaign with three straight wins.
“Paul is having a think about things, and that’s fine,” said Greenwood, who is planning for his fourth season at the helm in 2022 without prop Tom Garratt, who is joining Hull KR, and versatile back Matty Fleming, who is leaving for Widnes, as well as Finn, but has agreed a two-year contract extension with centre Adam Ryder.
“It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone in the game, and it’s not all been enjoyable, so it’s sensible to take stock and decide what’s best for him as a player and a person.
“I’m relaxed about the situation, and I’m ready to be patient about building the squad for next year.
“We have made progress, but because we do things differently to some other clubs in terms of the places we are looking, it can take time for all the pieces to fall into place.”
Ireland international Finn began his second stint at Dewsbury in 2019. He started out at Halifax before spells with Wakefield (twice), Featherstone (twice), Castleford, Widnes (on loan) and Newcastle.
“The sacrifices you make to be a professional or semi-professional player started to outweigh my desire and I just knew I couldn’t give it my all any more,” he explained.
Greenwood said: “To influence games in the way he has for such a long time speaks volumes of Liam. He is exactly the player a coach would want as their number seven.”

More retirements among Roughyeds ranks
OLDHAM duo Danny Bridge and Phil Joy have joined captain Gareth Owen in hanging up their boots – and Chairman and owner Chris Hamilton says the upheaval caused by Covid is a contributory factor.
Like 29-year-old hooker Owen, second rower Bridge, 28, and prop Joy, 30, were born in the town.
Ireland international Bridge arrived in 2018 after playing for Warrington and Rochdale while Joy has been at the Roughyeds since 2012.
Bridge, who began at amateur side Waterhead and was in Wigan’s Academy ranks before joining Warrington, has played 58 times for Oldham, scoring 19 tries.
He featured for England at junior level before representing Ireland in the 2013 World Cup, and also played in the qualifiers for next year’s tournament, taking his international appearance tally to six.
Ireland beat Spain 42-8 in Valencia and Italy 25-4 in Dublin to top European Pool A.
Joy, who like Owen, was a part of two League 1 promotion successes with Oldham, in 2015 and 2019, has notched 27 tries in 166 games – a high figure for a frontrow.
Owen and Bridge featured in the season-ending 21-14 defeat at Dewsbury, with the Roughyeds already relegated.
“Like Gareth Owen, Danny and Phil say their bodies have had enough,” said Hamilton.
“They went most of the 2020 season without any rugby because it was curtailed by Covid and Phil, especially, has missed a lot of 2021 because of injury.
“Going so long without rugby has had a massive affect on them – and a lot of other clubs are reporting similar situations.”
With a string of players tipped to leave following relegation, Oldham face a squad rebuild.
And the club have yet to confirm their coaching set-up for 2022, having played the final ten games of this season under the command with former Leeds coach Brian McDermott and Brendan Sheridan, who had been assistant to Matt Diskin before the former Batley chief’s departure in June.

Speculation aplenty as Panthers linked with Whitehaven pair
HALIFAX are being linked with Whitehaven duo Lachlan Walmsley and Louis Jouffret as well as Wakefield’s out-of-contract hooker Kyle Wood.
Versatile Australian back Walmsley, 22, and French half Jouffret, 26, were both in the Whitehaven team for Saturday’s play-off eliminator against the Panthers at The Shay.
Walmsley was in the development systems of both Newcastle Knights and South Sydney Rabbitohs and last year helped South Newcastle Lions reach the Newcastle Grand Final.
He has made a big impact with the Cumbrians this year, as has Jouffret, who returned for a second spell at the club in June after the French competition finished.
He joined Avignon after agreeing a deal with Ottawa Aces for 2021 before the pandemic put the brakes on the Canadian club’s entry to League 1.
Previously, he played for Whitehaven (in 2015 and 2016), Toulouse, Batley and Featherstone.
Wood, 32, started his second spell at Wakefield in 2017. He has also had two stints at Huddersfield and played for Doncaster and Sheffield.
There has been no shortage of speculation over targets for Halifax, who finished the regular season in third place, with Simon Grix nominated alongside Batley’s Craig Lingard and Whitehaven’s Gary Charlton for the Championship Coach of the Year award.
Ireland internationals Joe Keyes, the former London Broncos and Bradford halfback who is leaving Hull KR, and Leigh backrow Matty Gee have also been mentioned.
The West Yorkshire club have confirmed one-year contract extensions for backs Zack McComb and Greg Worthington and forwards Will Calcott, Dan Murray and Brandon Moore.
But halves Liam Harris and Connor Robinson are both being linked with York, while fullback or halfback Scott Grix is retiring and threequarters Conor McGrath and Nick Rawsthorne are leaving the game due to work commitments.
Pacy 24-year-old McGrath made his first-team debut back in 2017, while Rawsthorne, 25, was signed from Hull KR ahead of this season.

Eager Gill ready to build with the Bulls
BRADFORD recruit Kieran Gill is looking forward to being back in Yorkshire after confirmation that he is the Bulls’ first new signing for 2022.
The 25-year-old threequarter, who has caught the eye by scoring 48 tries in 43 appearances for Newcastle Thunder, 14 of them this season, came through the Academy ranks at Castleford to make four first-team appearances.
Gill had loan stints at Oxford, Oldham and Newcastle before agreeing a permanent Thunder deal ahead of last season.
He has signed a two-year contract at Bradford, who, with fullback Brandon Pickersgill reportedly being lined up by Featherstone, are being linked with Batley’s former London Skolars, Coventry, Workington and England Students player Elliot Hall as well as York backrower Sam Scott (the Knights, meanwhile, have signed Bulls winger Joe Brown).
Gill said: “I’ve had a great time at Newcastle but I’m looking forward to a new challenge and being back home in Yorkshire.
“There is a lot of experience in the Bradford side and the club is going places a lot of clubs want to – this is the path I want to be on.
“As an away player it is a big ordeal going to Odsal with the home supporters against you, so to be able to class them as my own fans is on a different level.
“My aim is to get into Super League with Bradford. Having spoken to (coaching duo) John Kear and Mark Dunning, that is what drove me to the club.
“I just want to prove my worth week in, week out, while scoring tries and picking up points with the team.”
Kear, whose side lost at Batley on Saturday in a play-off eliminator after a fifth-placed finish, said: “He is a player I have admired since he was at Castleford. He went to Newcastle and demonstrated just what a good strike player he is.
“He can play anywhere in the threequarters, he adds competition and he is a tall kid, so he is good under the high ball. He is a significant and important signing.”
Bradford have agreed a one-year contract extension with skipper Steve Crossley.