League Express Championship correspondent GARETH WALKER takes a team-by-team look ahead to the Betfred League One campaign, which starts tomorrow with just one game, as North Wales Crusaders take on Doncaster, while other League 1 clubs play their postponed Challenge Cup third round matches.
THE third tier of the professional game was due to kick off its league season this weekend with eleven clubs battling it out.
But most of them now find themselves in re-arranged Challenge Cup action instead after stormy weather battered Britain last Sunday.
At least six of the clubs involved in the league will have genuine promotion hopes, while others will hope to crash the play-off party and perhaps make a late push for the Championship.
The two teams being tipped by most pundits to finish top have been Barrow Raiders and Newcastle Thunder.
The Cumbrian club has retained the vast majority of last season’s squad and made a handful of quality additions, and having trodden this path before under experienced coach Paul Crarey, they deserve to be respected again.
The likes of halfback Jamie Dallimore and backrower Jono Smith know all about what it takes to succeed at this level, while experienced prop duo Carl Forster and Lee Jewitt should set a significant platform up front.
Youngsters Luke Creswell and Theerapol Ritson could also thrive with increased responsibility, and with another host of talented locals pushing for first-team places there is much to be optimistic about on the west coast.
On the opposite side of the country, Thunder have also kept most of the key players that took them to within a try of promotion last year, most notably late-season arrival Quentin Laulu-Togagae and prolific centre Kieran Gill.
But it’s Simon Finnigan’s new recruitment that stands out. Bob Beswick has been playing at the top end of the second tier with Toronto, while Brenden Santi was the same at Toulouse, and destructive forward Adam Lawton could be one of the signings of the season.
But the additions made by both Doncaster and Hunslet should ensure Thunder and the Raiders don’t have it all their own way.
One look at the Dons’ halfback options illustrates how much of a threat they will be – Rangi Chase, Matty Beharrell and Watson Boas look more like a Championship line-up than a third-tier one.
The addition of Sam Smeaton, Graeme Horne and Ross Peltier, among others, gives coach Richard Horne some real firepower at his disposal.
The same can be said of Hunslet’s Gary Thornton, who has built a squad around the vastly experienced Dom Brambani following his move from Batley.
With Alex Rowe, Simon Brown and Harry Kidd also among their new recruits, they will be confident of improving on last year’s fifth-placed finish.
Progression will also be on the agenda at Workington Town and Keighley Cougars.
Town have lost a key man in Sean Penkywicz, but a full pre-season under coach Chris Thorman should be hugely beneficial and they look to have a healthy balance of promising youth and considerable experience.
Coventry signing Elliot Hall is one to keep an eye on.
Keighley could be the big improvers looking at their squad, which includes former NRL star Jake Webster and returning favourite Richie Hawkyard.
Again, their extended time under coach Rhys Lovegrove should serve them well.
North Wales Crusaders will be hoping to close and bridge the three-point gap to the play-offs where they were short in 2019, and Anthony Murray’s retention of key men Tommy Johnson, Steve Roper and Warren Thompson will help.
Watch out for gifted young halfback Brad Billsborough on his return from Australia.
Rochdale Hornets are perhaps the biggest enigma in the competition – a relegated club that has undergone a complete overhaul of its squad, which includes a high percentage of top amateur players.
But new signings Penkywicz, Sam Hopkins and Sam Freeman add a sprinkling of genuine quality, and with a feel-good factor returning to the club following an off-field takeover, coach Matt Calland will be quietly confident in a job he has always coveted.
London Skolars coach Jermaine Coleman will have some real strike out wide with Dalton Grant and Kameron Pearce-Paul joining Iliess Macani, and the capital club will want to remain involved in the play-offs race for longer than in 2019.
Coventry Bears are another relatively unknown, after having parted company with long-serving coach Tom Tsang and seen club founder Alan Robinson overseeing playing matters in a director of rugby role.
Their faith in local talent is admirable and visionary, but it might mean victories are tough to come by again.
The same can be said of West Wales Raiders, also under a new coach in Australian Aaron Wood.
Improving on their one league win last season will be their first target and hopefully the days of weekly one-sided hammerings can be put firmly behind them.
Read Gareth Walker’s Championship news and his Championship Focus column in this Monday’s issue of League Express.