Championship season kicks-off with clubs not even sure what they’re playing for

It’s a pivotal season for Rugby League in this country in many respects, but the Championship more than most.

While the uncertainty surrounding the structure of the sport helps nobody, it affects the clubs in the second tier significantly.

Those at the top end want reassurances that the pathway to Super League will remain open, while those at the bottom need to know whether or not there will be relegation and in what form.

Then there is the huge elephant in the room of the Super League clubs wanting to take more of the TV money back for themselves.

All of this at a time when the Championship looked to be finally achieving some of its key objectives.

That pathway to the top is relatively clear and decided, as it should be, on the field.

There is also the central funding in the competition to ensure relegation is not the financial disaster it once was, not least this season, with Leigh receiving an additional parachute payment.

Because of both of these factors, the Championship is able to accommodate full-time teams, which is a key necessity if promotion and relegation is to continue.

There are still issues in the competition, not least the disparity in central funding, which is crucial to bridge that Super League gap, but is making it tough for the teams at the bottom end to compete.

But it’s something that can be bridged, given the right coach and playing staff, as the likes of part-time Batley, Featherstone and Halifax have proved in recent years by making the Qualifiers.

As this column has regularly highlighted, a strong second tier can be hugely beneficial to the game as a whole, and strides have been made towards that in the last three years.

Whether this exact structure stays in place remains to be seen, but it has had some important benefits for the clubs involved and provided excitement on the field.

As such, those that understand that should fight as hard as possible to retain funding and opportunity when any reshuffle is eventually discussed and decided.

On the playing front there is much to look forward to in 2018.

The simmering rivalry between Leigh and Toronto is the perfect way to kick the season off and may even dominate national media coverage over Super League on Sunday.

Toulouse have made three smart additions to their squad in William Barthau, Sam Rapira and Eddie Pettybourne and should be well placed to improve on last year’s fifth-placed finish.

The fourth full-time team, London Broncos, have had minimal changes to their playing squad and shouldn’t be underestimated, and there is a queue of part-time sides eager to make an impact.

Featherstone have an experienced and talented squad, Halifax made the four last year and will be strong again and both Dewsbury and Batley look capable of progressing in 2018.

Sheffield Eagles are some way behind most teams in terms of recruitment and preparation, but that isn’t new to coach Mark Aston, and a return to the Steel City is a major boost for the club.

Rochdale and Swinton both defied the odds by avoiding relegation last season and will believe they can do so again, while promoted Barrow will add a much-missed Cumbrian dimension to the competition. If they can overcome the toughest of starts they will probably be tough to beat.

The Summer Bash will again provide that fleeting glimpse into the television coverage many feel the Championship deserves on a more regular basis, alongside the four teams that make the Qualifiers.

Given Leigh and Toronto’s spending power, and the vulnerability of a handful of clubs in Super League, perhaps this could be the season where two Championship clubs progress through this system.

And that would be an interesting and timely reminder to those who seem to think the top-flight is the be-all and end-all of the sport.