This year, perhaps more than ever, there is a huge amount of interest around the Kingstone Press Championship.
Whether it be monitoring relegated Hull KR’s fortunes, those of promoted Toulouse and Rochdale, or the continuing drama that has been Bradford Bulls of late, there is much to anticipate in 2017.
The action kicks off this weekend with six fascinating opening matches.
Many eyes will be on Hull KR-Bradford, a fixture that not long ago was being played out in the top flight.
The two heavyweights have experienced contrasting close seasons.
Rovers regrouped quickly from the devastation of their Million Pound Game loss to Salford, and under new coach Tim Sheens assembled a squad that wouldn’t look out of place in Super League in many people’s eyes.
Included in the pre-season campaign was an impressive derby win against an admittedly understrength Hull FC, and they will be red hot favourites both to kick-start the year with a win and also top the table.
It could hardly be more different at Bradford, who little over two weeks ago still didn’t have a club, have a squad that has been cherry-picked by rival clubs, and start on minus 12 points.
But they do have an eye-catching new coach of their own in Geoff Toovey – visa permitting – and although it’s a huge ask for them to start strongly, expect them to improve quickly in coming weeks.
Elsewhere, the weekend’s action kicks off on Saturday, when Toulouse will be hoping that their second spell at this level starts on a positive note against a Batley team fancied to do well under new coach Matt Diskin.
With Toulouse being virtually full-time in 2017 and the Bulldogs having some of the best part-time players in the sport, both will have eyes on a top four challenge this year.
The other promoted side Rochdale begin their own return to the Championship with a home match against a Dewsbury side that has stuttered a little in pre-season having suffered a number of injuries.
However, they impressed at times in defeat against a strong Leigh team on Sunday, and it should be an intriguing battle against a Hornets side whose own friendly campaign has gone well and look well placed to hit the ground running.
The same can be said of opponents Swinton and London Broncos, both of whom have caught the eye in recent weeks.
Featherstone are another club to come firmly into that category, and although their opponents Halifax lost all three of their friendlies – including against Rovers – their coach Richard Marshall has seen an improvement over the course of the matches.
In the final match, Oldham host another team that has had to effectively rebuild during the winter in Sheffield Eagles.
Given that the Roughyeds have not really impressed in their warm-up matches and the Eagles started way behind most other clubs, it is another difficult game to predict on what should be a terrific weekend to open the season.