STRENGTHS – The appointment of John Kear is an inspired one. Having had great success in his role as Head of Rugby at Wakefield Trinity, Kear has taken up the attractive offer of attempting to lead Bradford Bulls back to the Championship at the first attempt. With the squad he has at his disposal, that shouldn’t be a problem for a coach of his ability.
WEAKNESSES – Following their relegation, the Bulls have lost key figures such as Johnny Campbell and James Bentley to Super League and Championship sides. So, with a new-look team, it may take time for them to gel. Many teams in League 1 will see a visit to a former Super League giant such as Bradford as a ‘Cup Final’, which could prove difficult to handle for the Bulls.
KEY PLAYER – Gregg McNally: Having spent nearly a decade in the Championship, McNally’s quality could prove vital if Bradford are to bounce back at the first attempt.
STRENGTHS – Slowly but surely Rugby League is growing in Coventry. Season ticket sales and interest, following Leeds Rhinos’ visit to Butts Park Arena in mid-January, are on the up. The Bears earned more victories in 2017 than 2016 and, with the addition of internationals Paul Emanuelli and Chris Vitalini, coach Tom Tsang has the makings of a squad that can once again improve.
WEAKNESSES – The decision to focus largely on local talent has seen the departure of a number of stars such as 2017 Young Player of the Year, Billy Gaylor, joining Keighley. University players Lewis Lord and Dante Morley-Samuels have been added, but it may take some time for them to adjust to the higher intensity of play in League 1.
KEY PLAYER – Paul Emanuelli: Scrum-half Emanuelli is a former Welsh international and a League 1 veteran. With this vital experience under his belt, he could be the calm, collective head the Bears’ youthful side needs.
STRENGTHS – Richard Horne has now had a full pre-season with his players after taking over in June 2017 and steadying the Doncaster ship. Bringing the players in a few weeks early, Horne will have had the chance to impose his style on the team. He’s also brought in some shrewd signings in former Super League pair Richard Owen and Ryan Boyle.
WEAKNESSES – Following a poor end to 2017, Horne has rung the changes heading into the new season as 12 depart the club. Iafeta Palea’aesina has retired, whilst experienced quartet Makali Aizue, Mike Worrincy, Jamie Thackray and Louis Sheriff are amongst those to join other clubs. Rebuilding the side will take time and the Dons may suffer as a result.
KEY PLAYER – Richard Owen: Bursting on to the scene as a teenager at Castleford, Owen was once the ‘next big thing’ but off-field problems have led him to a last-chance saloon stint with Doncaster.
STRENGTHS – Hemel have an exciting coaching team going into the new season. Led by former Super League forward and player-coach Mitch Stringer, the Stags also have Loughborough University coach Tim Farnden and ex-Sheffield and Scottish international prop Jack Howieson as assistants. Hemel have also attracted the talents of Louis Sheriff and Liam Darville from Doncaster and Keighley respectively.
WEAKNESSES – Hemel have a tough job to improve on their three wins in 2017. The constant trips down south to Hemel from their base for 2018 in Sheffield means they are consigned to being the travelling team for every single game. With such disruption, it’s not hard to see why Hemel struggle to avoid the wooden spoon.
KEY PLAYER – Kieran Smith: Joining from rivals Keighley, halfback Smith won the Reserve Player of the Year Award in 2017 following several impressive performances. A Sheffield Hallam University student, Smith will be at home at Hemel’s South Yorkshire base.
STRENGTHS – After replacing James Coyle mid-season, Gary Thornton won ten out of 14 games at the back end of 2017 as Hunslet were crowned League 1 Shield winners. The team has now been strengthened with Championship quality; Cain Southernwood, Nathan Chappell and Duane Straugheir join from second-tier clubs. With a full pre-season with Thornton at the helm, Hunslet will be aiming for the top five in 2018.
WEAKNESSES – Thornton has a 30-man squad at his disposal, so keeping those out of the first team happy could prove tough. Hunslet have also been plagued by injuries in the off-season with outside backs Joel Gibson, David Foggin-Johnston, Niall Walker and Jordan Gill all facing spells on the sideline. If they are to do well, their squad depth will have to shine through.
KEY PLAYER – Duane Straugheir: Having played over 150 games at Championship level for Sheffield, Straugheir brings a wealth of talent and experience. As the club’s new co-captain, the backrower will be vital for Hunslet’s top five push.
STRENGTHS – Keighley’s main strength over their rivals is their persistence and determination with their reserve side. When injuries strike, they always have plenty of willing and capable players to slot in. Keighley will be hoping that results such as their home draw with Toronto in late 2017 are a sign of things to come in 2018.
WEAKNESSES – 13 new faces have arrived at Cougar Park. With such a large turnover, it may take time for things to take shape. If they don’t start quickly, Keighley could find themselves lingering behind some formidable competition with Bradford and Oldham hunting an immediate return to the Championship.
KEY PLAYER – Matty Beharrell: Halfback Beharrell ran the show in 2017, often proving the difference between a win and a loss. And, with former halfback partner Benn Hardcastle alongside him, Beharrell will go from strength to strength.
STRENGTHS – After ending 2017 with a loss in the Shield final, head coach Jermaine Coleman has more or less kept the same squad in a bid to build stability and unity, whilst the signing of winger Omari Caro is a fantastic coup. After such a promising end to the season in 2017, Coleman has asked his players to raise their fitness at the start of this season to mount an assault on the top five.
WEAKNESSES – With the demise of Gloucestershire All Golds and Oxford, London will be careful not to be tempted into overspending in order to keep up with the likes of Doncaster and York. Whilst this is perhaps good business sense, it may be detrimental to London on the field. The Skolars won’t have exciting hooker Ben Pointer, who has joined Newcastle Thunder from London Broncos.
KEY PLAYER – Omari Caro: No other Skolars’ player comes close to registering 50 Super League appearances. A tough, durable and flying winger, Caro could light up the New River Stadium in 2017 after his move from Bradford Bulls.
STRENGTHS – As interim coach in 2017, Jason Payne recorded seven straight wins before a loss to Barrow ended Thunder’s run to the playoffs. Now permanent head coach, Payne has made some impressive signings, strengthening Newcastle’s promotion hopes. Theerapol Ritson and Conor Fitzsimmons join from Workington and Castleford respectively, whilst impressive duo Evan Simons and Harry Aldous remain at the club despite interest from elsewhere.
WEAKNESSES – Though Payne has recruited well, the departure of key players in halfback Benn Hardcastle and centre Derrell Olpherts could come back to haunt Thunder. A surprise package in 2017, Newcastle’s promotion rivals will now know what to expect, making Payne’s challenge even greater.
KEY PLAYER – Evan Simons: Former Widnes Vikings junior Evan Simons has been a key figure for Thunder in recent seasons. The fact that Championship sides were chasing his signature shows just how influential the wily hooker is.
NORTH WALES CRUSADERS
STRENGTHS – Coming within points difference of making the Super 8s, North Wales’ season in 2017 was a promising one and they’ll be aiming for the top five in 2018. Bringing former Whitehaven halfback Steven Roper to Wrexham could be a shrewd move, whilst the introduction of a reserves team could provide a springboard for future Welsh talent.
WEAKNESSES – While the Crusaders have set up a reserve side, many believe that the lack of Welshmen within the squad is an issue. One of the club’s main targets should be to promote the sport in Wales as well as be competitive in an ever-strengthening league.
KEY PLAYER – Steven Roper: The 31-year-old halfback brings control and experience to the Crusaders. With game management like few others in League 1, Roper could be the man to push North Wales further up the table.
STRENGTHS – With head coach Scott Naylor penning a two-year extension, Oldham are in a stable place moving forward. And, after returning to the Whitebank Stadium, fans’ loyalty is stronger than ever despite Oldham’s relegation. The Roughyeds have also recruited well. Paul Crook nearly steered Whitehaven to promotion in 2017 and he will be determined to go one better in 2018.
WEAKNESSES – Being relegated brings with it an expectation to bounce straight back. The rest of League 1 will be gunning for Oldham. The loss of key players like Scott Leatherbarrow and harsh financial constraints could prove costly for Oldham, who have entered a league with plenty of teams capable of promotion.
KEY PLAYER – Paul Crook: Aged 31, halfback Crook, a man with a cool head on mature shoulders, joins a young Oldham squad. Having steered Rochdale to promotion in 2016, Crook knows what it takes to escape League 1.
WEST WALES RAIDERS
STRENGTHS – After a year as South Wales Ironmen, the Raiders, now owned by Andrew Thorne, are now permanently based in Llanelli. The Raiders now have greater financial stability, especially with their ownership of their ground, Stebonheath Park. The Raiders have also landed a coup with Welsh international Morgan Evans’s signing with the new club from the Ironmen.
WEAKNESSES – Jon Ellis is the new man at the helm and he’s built a side made up of local talent and an amalgamation of former Scorpions and Ironmen players. It will, therefore, take some time for the Raiders to get things going on the field. A 50-mile upheaval from Merthyr Tydfil to Llanelli could also mean the club will take time to settle off-the-field too.
KEY PLAYER – Morgan Evans: Moving west with the club, Welsh international Evans is a player around whom Jon Ellis can build his squad after gaining good experience playing in League 1 with various clubs.
STRENGTHS – Carl Forster earned the League 1 Coach of the Year award for steering the Cumbrian side to within a whisker of promotion last season. The experience gained from 2017 will spur Haven on in the new season, whilst Forster has recruited some former Super League talent with hooker Stuart Howarth joining and former Workington halfback Callum Phillips also among those joining the club.
WEAKNESSES – Haven’s halfback stars in 2017, Paul Crook and Steven Roper, have moved on, whilst club legend Craig Calvert has called time on his career, leaving Haven in something of a rebuilding stage. Moreover, the club has seen many players move across Cumbria to join Leon Pryce’s Workington Town team. Whitehaven got close to promotion in 2017 but will find it harder in 2018.
KEY PLAYER – Dion Aiye: With Crook and Roper departing, stand-off Aiye is wearing the No.6 shirt in 2018. If Haven are to push for promotion, the PNG international will be vital.
STRENGTHS – There is a real buzz around Derwent Park following the appointment of former Great Britain stand-off Leon Pryce as head coach. And Pryce has wasted no time in stamping his own authority on the team and club itself, working hard within the local community and bringing in huge talent such as ex-Super League stars Oliver Wilkes, Jamie Foster and, most recently, Ryan Bailey.
WEAKNESSES – With just one win from the last four meetings with Whitehaven, Pryce will have his work cut out to establish Town as the best Cumbrian side in League 1. This is, of course, Pryce’s first coaching job. He has won it all as a player, but being a coach is very different and like most coaches in this day and age, he won’t be given long to prove himself.
KEY PLAYER – Oliver Wilkes: Former Scottish international, Oliver Wilkes is an energetic and powerful forward who played 28 times in Barrow’s promotion-winning season in 2017. An ex-Super League forward, Wilkes will bring all his vast experience to Derwent Park.
YORK CITY KNIGHTS
STRENGTHS – With York’s future now secure under new owners, head coach James Ford has been able to oversee a much more settled pre-season. As York reached the playoffs in 2017 despite the adversity, they are capable of achieving a top-five finish in 2018. Ford has also recruited smartly, with former Hull KR players Ben Cockayne, Graeme Horne and Will Jubb all joining the City Knights.
WEAKNESSES – Though Ford has recruited well, York have lost a number of key players. Harry Tyson-Wilson, David Foggin-Johnston and Ryan Mallinder have all left for Hunslet, while Jake Butler-Fleming had joined the Knights for 2018 but has since departed for Toronto. York will have to compete with relegated Championship sides Bradford and Oldham as well as the improving sides around them for a top-five spot.
KEY PLAYER – Ben Cockayne: Cockayne left Hull KR for York in the off-season. A tough and skilful fullback with a career mostly played at the top level, York will be looking towards Cockayne for something special.