After an absence of over a year, the Betfred Championship returns to action this weekend with seven mouth-watering matches.
All but Toulouse Olympique have already returned to competitive action through the Challenge Cup, although the French side had a full-on hit out against Super League rivals Catalans.
A number of Cup fixtures are repeated over Easter, and with all seven matches available on OurLeague, there is much for fans outside the top flight to look forward to this weekend, even if the wait to return to grounds goes on a little longer.
Here are some of the key issues from each match.
Halifax Panthers v London Broncos, 5pm
The newly named Panthers will be looking for a rapid response from their Challenge Cup exit to Batley, which fell below pre-season expectations.
Simon Grix’s team have a tough start to the league campaign – after the full-time Broncos, they face Bradford and then Toulouse, and won’t want to be playing catch-up to the play-off chasing pack.
Danny Ward’s Broncos have had minimal changes in their squad since 2020 and will be keen to start their promotion push with a win – Jarrod Sammut could hold the key.
Oldham v Swinton Lions, 5.15pm
The first of the Challenge Cup repeats, with these two teams having met just five days before this league opener.
Prior to that it was four years since the two local rivals met in a competitive fixture (hat tip to League Express and RFL stats man Dan Spencer for that fact).
That game, in 2017, saw the Lions stay in the Championship and condemn the Roughyeds to relegation – both clubs will be acutely aware of the importance of a good start in steering clear of any battles at the bottom.
Featherstone Rovers v Batley Bulldogs, 7.30pm
Another Challenge Cup rematch after the teams clashed on Saturday, and one that sees a cluster of players face their former club.
Rovers are the competition favourites in sponsors Betfred’s eyes, but will be wary of underestimating Craig Lingard’s team.
Josh Tonks has shown up well so far for the Bulldogs and his battles with the combative Jack Bussey are unlikely to be dull.
York City Knights v Toulouse Olympique, 4.30pm
The pick of the opening weekend matches in many people’s eyes sees York’s plush new stadium host its first competitive game against one of the promotion favourites.
These two clubs signed almost a full Super League 13 between them during the close season, and as such are expected to be among the pace setters in 2021.
There are a host of fascinating match-ups across the field, but the performances of halfbacks Johnathan Ford and Brendan O’Hagan is likely to be integral to the outcome.
Dewsbury Rams v Whitehaven, 7.30pm
The third cup repeat showdown, with Haven having recorded the result of the first round by dumping out Dewsbury, despite playing with 12 men for over half the game.
How much impact that game has on Saturday’s league opener remains to be seen, but it won’t have done the confidence of Gary Charlton’s side any harm.
Liam Finn and Gregg McNally have both experienced plenty of success at this level down the years and hold the key to who emerges victorious.
Sheffield Eagles v Bradford Bulls, 12.45pm
Two clubs that had the weekend off due to Challenge Cup exits meet in Sunday’s lunchtime clash – a game that also brings together two coaches that know all about each other.
Mark Aston and John Kear triumphed at Wembley together for the Eagles but are now more concerned with ensuring their respective teams make a positive start to this year’s league campaign.
Anthony Thackeray versus Danny Brough is a fascinating, pivotal battle.
Newcastle Thunder v Widnes Vikings, 5.15pm
Simon Finnigan must have raised a wry smile when the Championship fixture list was issued.
His first game in charge of Widnes is against former club Thunder – who have a host of ex-Vikings in their ranks.
The likes of Sam Wilde and the Chapelhow twins Ted and Jay will be relishing facing their old club – but the Vikings deserve to be favourites.
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