GARETH WALKER of League Express looks ahead to the new Betfred League 1 season.
WITH Super League and the Championship having already got their seasons underway, this weekend is the turn of Betfred League One.
Eleven clubs will be vying for two promotion spots and looking at the squads that have been assembled, it seems certain to be a fascinating race.
Oldham were named as early favourites by one bookmakers, having beaten Championship clubs Barrow and Rochdale in pre-season. It’s fair to say last season fell below expectations for the Roughyeds, but they have a balanced squad and new addition Richie Hawkyard could be an x-factor.
Newcastle Thunder have caused a stir with their winter recruitment, which has included Liam Finn, Misi Taulapapa and Keal Carlile. On paper, they should be challenging strongly for promotion.
So too should Workington Town, given both how close they came last season but also when you consider that their squad includes Danny Tickle, Sam Hopkins and Ryan Fieldhouse, with Sean Penkywicz and Oliver Wilkes also having stayed.
Neighbours Whitehaven have fewer big-name players in their ranks, but the Phillips brothers Callum and Brett have been reunited and PNG stars Deon Aiye and Jesse Joe Parker will ask questions of any defence.
Hunslet are another club to impress with their signings, with established forwards Richard Moore and Adam Robinson giving them a strong-looking pack for halfbacks Danny Nicklas, Joe Sanderson and Cain Southernwood to work off.
Doncaster also have some impressive forwards in Ryan Boyle, Frankie Mariano and new recruit Brandon Douglas, though with a smaller squad than many of their rivals, much could depend on how their dual registration partnership with Hull FC works.
North Wales Crusaders have perhaps flown under the radar a bit in pre-season, but any squad including seasoned winners at this level in Steven Roper and Rob Massam, plus the out-of-retirement again Stephen Wild, should certainly not be underestimated.
Keighley Cougars will start the campaign on minus 12 points after their tumultuous winter, but there seems to be a genuine feel-good mood returning to the club under previous owners Mick O’Neill and Mike Smith, and James Feather and Jamie Thackray offer vast experience.
Coventry Bears have been one of the success stories of recent seasons and will be looking to add to their first “established” scalps of Keighley and Hunslet last year, with Kameron Pearce-Paul and Kadeem Williams two of several exciting performers in their team.
London Skolars’ progress has perhaps stalled a little in that same timeframe, but their 2019 squad looks strong, with Neil Thorman, Lamont Bryan and former Super League wingers Omari Caro and Iliess Macani offering real quality.
Finally, there are high hopes that West Wales Raiders can improve dramatically under new coach Kim Williams after their hugely testing 2018, with half a dozen overseas players expected to significantly stiffen their resolve.
Read Gareth Walker’s Championship Focus column in Monday’s edition of League Express.