TotalRL’s 50 best players in the Championship

The Summer Bash is upon us and with that, the Championship gets its chance to shine.

The criminal lack of coverage the competition gets on television means the array of talent strutting its stuff in the division doesn’t get the focus it rightfully deserves.

However, all 12 teams will have their annual moment in the spotlight this weekend as they all head to Blackpool for a Championship bonanza that boasts some pivotal games in the makeup of the top four race and the fight for survival.

So ahead of this year’s event, we’ve put together a countdown of the league’s top 50 players in order to showcase the top talent in the competition.

An eight-man panel individually put together their nominations, with all the votes being combined for the final list put together. The people on the panel were:

Matthew Shaw (TotalRL Editor & Premier Sports’ touchline reporter)
Gareth Walker (League Express’ Championship news reporter & Daily Mirror’s Rugby League correspondent)
Richard Marshall (Halifax head coach)
Alan Kilshaw (Rochdale Hornets head coach)
Ryan Sparks (Featherstone’s head of media operations)
Dave Parkinson (League Express’ Leigh Centurions reporter)
Ian Rigg (League Express’ Swinton Lions reporter)
Tom Coates (League Express Championship correspondent)

So, without further ado, let’s start the countdown.

50 – Rob Massam

In a competition blessed with great wingers, Massam stands out for several reasons.

First, his pure athleticism is evident by just looking at him in action. His powerful running movement catches the eye, not only because of it’s intimidating nature, but how he moves so effortlessly.

By day, Massam is a personal trainer. It clearly has had positive effects on his rugby. His mobility is superb and it makes him difficult to handle both in yardage and close to the line.

He can finish too. 27 tries in 35 games since the beginning of last season is nothing to look down on.

49 – Micky Higham

Weeping live on television following Leigh’s relegation was no way for this fierce warrior to bow out of the game.

The decision to retire off the back of that never really sat well with anyone in the game, so it came as a great delight when Higham dusted off the boots and resumed his playing career when Leigh were most in need following Neil Jukes’ resignation.

Since coming back, Higham has proved that he is more than capable of carrying on. His intelligence and work rate continues to impress.

Now, he has a chance to further endear himself on the terraces of LSV.

48 – Adam Higson

It’s a shame in so many ways that Adam Higson’s career has only been blessed with one season in Super League.

After years of honing his craft in the Championship, Higson rose through the ranks and made a name for himself for his physicality.

There’s no rest with Higson, his ball carries are always done with intent and he defends so well that he looks as comfortable at centre as he does on the wing.

He can, at times, get under the skin of opponents and sometimes he falls foul of the referee’s whistle. But the winger provides plenty of qualities that make him a great player at this level.

47 – Dane Manning

What’s so impressive about Dane Manning is his consistency.

Anyone who has tracked his career will struggle to recall him having a bad game. Manning is one of those players that consistently plays at eight out of ten.

Rarely does a back-rower earn adulation, but take a look back at the reaction of Halifax supporters when he left to join Batley, and you’ll soon realise just how highly regarded he was.

His talents are still appreciated now. A complete all-rounder, Manning brings a source or reliability you need in every side.

46 – Greg Worthington

A Yorkshire lad by birth, Worthington has established himself as one of the Championship’s strongest centres on both sides of the Pennines.

After bursting onto the scene at Featherstone and proving himself to be one of the league’s strongest players, he has continued to be a strong player at both Leigh and Toronto.

Worthington isn’t the flashiest player you’ll come across, but his evolution as a player has seen him become a key component in teams at the top of this division. Rarely does he miss a tackle and you’ll have to work hard to find him make an error. He’s a sound defender, one that halfbacks love to have outside of them to take up their defensive duties.

45 – Liam Hood

Playing in sides featuring big reputations and high-profile stars, Liam Hood is often a forgotten man.

But he has more than pulled his weight during his two-and-a-half years at the Centurions. When fit, Hood has rarely missed out on selection, and under Kieron Purtill he has become a key component in their success.

Coming off the bench, Hood has played a part in Leigh turning the screw upon his arrival on the field, and it’s no coincidence. Anything but shy when it comes to dishing out flattening tackles, his improvement in attack has seen him become a more complete performer.

44 – Connor Farrell

Farrell is the latest proof that a move to the Championship can be a wise career move.

Coming through Wigan’s academy, fierce competition coupled with a serious injury meant Farrell’s pathway to first-grade was always blurred.

After countless loan spells, Farrell made the plunge into part-time rugby with Featherstone, where he has developed at a rapid rate since getting regular first-team action.

Farrell fits nicely into a robust Featherstone pack. His aggression in the tackle and willingness to ruffle feathers works in his favour.

43 – Scott Murrell

If you believe rumours, talk last year was that Murrell was keen to call time on his career, only to be talked out of the idea by head coach Richard Marshall.

Whether the story is true or not, it’s reflective of Halifax’s reliance on their long-term lynchpin. He has been their go-to guy for over five years, and without him, they lose their way. It was all perfectly summed up by a game against Oldham on Easter Monday last year. With Fax leading, Murrell was hauled off for a rest. At that point, Halifax completely collapsed. Murrell was brought back on to see the game out.

At the age of 32, Murrell’s career is nearing its conclusion, and Fax will have to look for a replacement. It’s a thought that will scare every Fax fan.

42 – Shaun Robinson

It often says a lot about a player when their former head coach makes them a top target for their new side.

That was the case with Robinson, with John Duffy moving instantly to snap up the speedster after leaving Swinton.

The form of Luke Briscoe has seen the spotlight move to the other side of the field quite often this season, but despite that, Robinson has still scored 11 times in 14 games.

41 – Jay Pitts

One of the biggest compliments you can give Jay Pitts is that wherever he’s played, he’s been appreciated.

His qualities were recognised when he was named captain of the Broncos, a fine reward for his consistency and influence.

He’s a good player too. More known for playing in the back-row, his ball carries mean he never looks out of place when he plays prop. His possession of qualities for both positions means he is a difficult player to defend.

40 – Shane Grady

Earlier in this countdown, we told the tale of Dane Manning, and the impact Halifax fans thought it would have.

Shane Grady was the man tasked with replacing Manning, and he ended up being one of the best signings in the Championship.

He helped Halifax to top four success last year, and he proved this season just how good he is once again with a hat-trick against Leigh.

39 – Darcy Lussick

The first thing that you notice about Lussick is his pure size.

At 6’3 at 110kg, Lussick is a mountain of a man, and the Championship has quickly found out the hard way.

Toronto’s marquee signing has clocked up plenty of metres already and scored his first try for the Wolfpack on league debut against Halifax.

The early signs have been very encouraging indeed, and if this list was to be repeated at the end of the regular season, Lussick would likely feature much higher.

38 – Drew Hutchison

Hutchison arrived at Leigh as a man with bags of potential.

The halfback was one of the most highly-rated young Australian halfbacks. His time at St George Illawarra saw him make his NRL debut at the age of 20 and represent the Junior Kangaroos.

But a serious injury, plus the form of Gareth Widdop, restricted his chances. He took the option to come to the UK with Leigh, a big coup for the Centurions.

Things started slowly, but he is now finding his form. Should Leigh get the best out of him, they’ll have a hugely talented individual at their disposal.

37 – Chester Butler

If you want an example of just how valuable a reserve grade can be, Chester Butler is your prime example.

Signed up by Halifax from local club Siddal, the 23-year-old has developed at an incredible rate.

After being slowly introduced into first-grade, Butler has flourished in 2018, causing all sorts of problems at both centre and second-row.

His deceptive strength has always been a key component of his game, but now, his reading of the game and positional awareness have made him a potent weapon in Halifax’s attack. At such a young age, a move to Super League is likely to happen in the future.

36 – Josh McCrone

The truth of the matter is that McCrone hasn’t hit the heights many expected him to reach so far.

The good news is that gradually, his form is picking up. His one-on-one ball steal for Toronto’s opening try against Toulouse at Magic Weekend was the level of intelligence McCrone was expected to bring.

It can take time to adapt, and a string of injuries have seen McCrone play in different combinations all year. With Toronto getting back to near full-strength, expect the 31-year-old to start showing what he’s truly capable of.

35 – Will Sharp

You will struggle to find a player that earns as much praise from his coach than Will Sharp.

And who can blame Richard Marshall? Sharp has made a career scoring tries effortlessly on the wing, and then he was shifted to fullback.

There, he performed excellently, playing a pivotal role in Halifax’s excellent defensive structure that saw them boast the best defence in the Championship last season.

He cleaned up at the club’s end of season awards last year, proving just how appreciated he is from coaches, players and supporters alike.

34 – Stan Robin

Often the forgotten piece in Toulouse’s ruthless spine, Robin acts as a superb decoy for Johnathon Ford and Mark Kheirallah.

Why? Because he’s a livewire. A nightmare for defenders, Robin loves taking the ball to the line and running with the ball.

Giving Robin space is dangerous, and as a result, he takes the attention of defenders. He doesn’t score and create as many as he’d perhaps like to do, but the work he does opens up space for the others around him.

33 – Mark Ioane

Percentages. For many coaches in the modern game, that’s the key component they look at.

Well, Mark Ioane, in that regard, is the ideal prop forward.

Look through his stats and there are several things that will catch the eye. His sheer volume of carries, the yards that he makes and the tackles he’s involved in.

He’s certainly appreciated at the Broncos, playing big minutes and getting through work that allows some of their other forwards to do damage in shorter stints.

32 – Andrew Dixon

Dixon is one of many players on this list who has been a consistently good performer at this level.

It’s hard, in truth, to truly describe him as a player. He is an all-rounder. There is no one part of his game that stands out above anything else, nor is there any shortcoming that is evident. He runs good lines, tackles well and gets through a lot of work.

He’s reliable, and good at what he does. It might not catch the eye, but he’s appreciated by his peers.

31 – Jamie Acton

Loved by his own, hated by the others, Jamie Acton is the modern day pantomime villain.

But, like many of those who have played the role before, Acton is a damn good player who has an evident impact on his side.

Acton can start from kick-off or from the bench, but his presence is felt whenever. At Super League level, his arrival to the field saw the momentum shift in Leigh’s favour. He’ll do the same at this level too.

His discipline can be his downfall, but he plays on the edge, and trying to stop that would work against all the strengths he has.

30 – William Barthau

There was a time when dropping to the Championship was seen as the end of a career.

Barthau is one of several examples that’s far from the case.

After struggling to establish himself at Catalans, the halfback made the move to London. There, he thrived, playing a part in Andrew Henderson’s renaissance that saw the Broncos flirt with a return to Super League.

He’s back in France now, and Toulouse are better for it.

29 – Jordan Thompson

At Hull FC, Thompson was always a forgotten man.

He got about his business quietly, did his job with a minimum of fuss and stayed out of the spotlight.

But his move to the Centurions has changed that. He has taken a more senior role and thrived in it.

28 – Kieran Dixon

Anyone who consumes Super League level only will remember Kieran Dixon as a sensational try-scorer, but fairly dodgy without the ball. The Challenge Cup Final always comes to mind.

But since his move to London, Dixon has refined his skills. Not only does he still possess his incredible offensive ability, but he’s added the defensive components to his game that he always needed.

Dixon, now, is a more complete player than ever before. London are feeling the benefits of that.

27 – Quentin Laulu-Togage

Ask any Halifax fan what they’ve missed over the last five years and they’ll all give you the same answer – a fullback.

Many have played there, and done quite well, in fact, Will Sharp was a revelation in 2017.

But none have provided the attacking spark that they’ve lacked since Shad Royston and Ryan Fieldhouse played out of the back.

The arrival of QLT has changed that. It’s no coincidence that, on his debut, Fax registered their highest score of the season so far as he scored one and set three up.

A class act, and Halifax are a better team for it.

26 – Craig Hall

Craig Hall doesn’t look like your typical player.

He’s tall, slim and runs in a rather relaxed manner.

Perhaps that’s why defences struggled to contain him. His deceptive pace and agility have left many a defender embarrassed over the years.

Hall’s biggest strength is his versatility. Put him at fullback, wing, centre or even in the halves, and he will score plenty of points.

25 – Tyla Hepi

The Kiwi is one of the more obscure players on this list, but any regular viewer of Championship rugby shouldn’t be surprised to see him so high.

Since his move to Toulouse, Hepi has developed into one of the brightest young players outside of Super League.

Hepi has the lot, a strong carry, brute force, an ability to run through a gap and pass the ball too.

He acts as a huge decoy for players around him, and he often provides something special on his own, too.

24 – Adam Tangata

Amazingly, it appeared as though Tangata was going to be a flop when he joined Fax in 2015.

He struggled to make the team at first, spending several games as a waterboy.

But hard work and a willingness to improve saw him work his way up the pecking order. Now, he’s regarded as one of the best forwards in the division.

Tangata has that rawness in his game that makes Pacific Islanders so popular and entertaining to watch. His intent in every carry and every tackle makes him a firm favourite. But what ensures that he stands out is his ability to carve open defences with clever runs as well as forceful drives, his knack for popping up when his team needs him the most.

Tangata hasn’t played yet this season, but how Halifax will be grateful when he returns to fitness.

23 – Matty Russell

Yes, Russell has only played one Championship game so far, but nobody in this country needs reminding of his talents.

The Scotland international is a nuisance. On the wing, he’s superb in yardage and a decent finished. Playing at fullback, he’s a nightmare to defend off the back of an offload or in free play.

Life at Warrington didn’t end on the brightest of notes, but his debut try at Magic Weekend was a positive start to the next stage of his career.

22 – Gareth Hock

Hock will go down as one of the most memorable players in Super League history for many reasons.

Some are good, some, of course, are not so good.

But his talents as a rugby league player are undeniable, and now, even in the advancing years of his career, his class is still apparent.

Featherstone are the beneficiaries of his talents at the moment, and Hock appears to be enjoying himself more than ever.

21 – Joe Bullock

The biggest compliment you can give Joe Bullock is the calibre of player he has finished above in this countdown.

A hard-running prop, Bullock is Barrow’s enforcer and does a superb job against players with more experience and bigger reputations.

The Raiders powerhouse is still just 25 and has his best years ahead of him. It’s no surprise to see Super League clubs linked with a move.

20 – Bob Beswick

You’ll struggle to find anyone as criminally underrated as Bob Beswick.

Throughout the entirety of his career, Beswick has been the heart of the teams he’s played in. It’s no coincidence that wherever he has gone, his side has been successful.

Even now in his advancing years, he still brings intelligence, composure and calmness to a Toronto side blessed with players that have played at a much higher level than he has for a longer period of time.

The only regret is that he didn’t get to showcase his talents regularly in Super League.

19 – Harrison Hansen

Harrison Hansen needs no introduction.

His longevity in Wigan’s side is a testament to his quality, as is his trophy cabinet.

At Leigh he has taken a leadership role as he enters the advances stages of his career. With that, he’s become dependable. In many ways, you could say he’s indispensable.

Still the competitor he’s always been, Hansen is a quality performer and one Leigh are much better for having.

18 – Andy Ackers

You know when you’re compared to Daryl Clark, you’re doing something right.

It’s a comment that has been made many times about the Toronto hooker, who has proven to be a shrewd acquisition for the Wolfpack this season.

It’s easy to see where the comparisons come from, his explosiveness out of the ruck and his quick turn of pace makes him a huge threat for defenders, and he often catches them out. His ability to make clean breaks is what catches the eye, but his ability to find chinks in defences from close to the line is equally as impressive.

17 – Cory Paterson

Listen to Toronto owner David Argyle and he speaks of his wish for a 360 player.

Well, Cory Paterson is perhaps the nearest thing the Wolfpack has to that right now.

On the field, he can do everything. He scores tries, he sets them up, heck, he’s even kicked conversions in the past. He is as near to the full package as you’ll find.

Off the field, he’s a coach’s delight. A good person, a strong character and an experienced leader.

16 – James Cunningham

James Cunningham’s name was entered into search bars plenty of times when the England Knights squad was confirmed.

But there’s no doubting a few things. One, that his inclusion is a massive acknowledgement of the talent in the Championship, and two, that he fully merited his place.

Cunningham is still only 24 but has stood out in a London side boasting plenty of attacking quality.

Injuries have threatened to derail him, but every time, he seemingly comes back better.

Cunningham is a big talent, one that won’t be being ignored by Super League clubs.

15 – Ashton Sims

Sims’ arrival at the Wolfpack always felt like a perfect fit.

He’s marketable, he’s all the qualities to become a firm favourite, and he’s the right fit as a person.

But the Fiji international can play too. With a strong offload and a good work ethic, Sims fits in well at Toronto. He’s often been pinpointed by players keen to give him a rough ride at this level, but he’s handled it well.

14 – Chase Stanley

For anyone close to the action, Stanley’s debut for Toronto was memorable.

Playing against Featherstone, the former Canterbury man was expected to receive quite the welcoming from Rovers and their robust pack.

Not that is fazed Stanley, rather than being the hunted, he was the hunter. He put players on the deck, took the wind out of them repeatedly and dominated all ends up.

Things have carried on the same since. He’ll prove to be quite the signing on his early showings.

13 – Alex Walker/h3>

At 22 years of age, Walker is the youngest player in this countdown.

But not only is Walker the league’s brightest young star right now, he’s one of the biggest prospects the division has seen for some time.

When he burst onto the scene at Summer Bash two years ago, Walker looked six stone wet through and anything but a Rugby League player.

But oh how he could play. As the years have gone by, he’s refined his skill set and matured physically.

A huge talent, and one you can expect to see in the top flight at some point in his career.

12 – Ben Reynolds/h3>

Ben Reynolds has, for the majority of his career, been an understudy.

He’s never been the guy. As a youngster, he was always in the shadows of Ryan Brierley and Martyn Ridyard, last year, despite plenty of strong performances, he was never Leigh’s go-to person.

This year, that has changed. Reynolds is the man, the lynchpin, the Tom Brady, so to speak.

He’s grasped that role, and often, played like a man trying to prove a point.

Prove a point he has. After a slow start, Reynolds has got a hold of his team and turned them into a force. With it, he’s shown exactly how good he is.

11 – Liam Kay

There’s so much to say about Liam Kay, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s start with the obvious. His try-scoring record speaks for itself. Since joining the Wolfpack, he has become the club’s record try-scorer, with a ridiculous return of 46 tries in 38 games.

But Kay is so much more than a finisher. You’ll struggle to find a winger at this level who comes out of back play better than him. He’s a metre-eater, and he gets through a ridiculous amount of work.

Defensively, the man is assured. His last-ditch tackle in the club’s win over Toulouse on Easter Monday was not only a match-winning moment, it was outrageously good, as he clawed back the winger who looked absolutely nailed on to score.

Kay, in Paul Rowley’s words, is a superstar. Hopefully, he’ll get a chance at the top level soon.

10 – Rhys Curran

29 tries in 42 games.

It’s a record that most outside backs would be proud of. But here’s the thing, Curran is a forward.

There’s no doubting it, Curran is the most potent strike weapon in the Championship. His ability to power through defenders is replicated by the well-timed runs that see him often go to the line unopposed.

He’s capable of breaking from deep, burrowing over from close-range, the lot.

Curran is a class-act, a constant threat, and with the supply he receives, he boasts a quite incredible try-scoring record.

9 – Tom Holmes

Holmes made a brave decision at the end of last season.

He had a choice – stay in Super League, or go to the Championship. The form of Luke Gale and Ben Roberts, coupled with the emergence of Jake Trueman, meant his long-term prospects at Castleford were limited. But rather than moving elsewhere and be a backup, he made the brave move to drop into the Championship.

The decision has paid off, he’s got the game time he’s craved, playing every game so far and impressing hugely.

He’s already being watched closely by Super League clubs, and when he does go back to the top flight, he’ll be better for his stint in the second tier.

8 – Jarrod Sammut

It’s a crying shame that a player as undoubtedly talented as Jarrod Sammut was deemed incapable of playing at the top flight.

It says, in truth, more about the way the game is played than anything else. Rugby League is becoming more and more structured, and halfbacks aren’t encouraged to play what’s in front of them.

That, of course, is exactly what Sammut does so exceptionally well. To stifle him of his talents would be a loss to the game, and for that, it’s great to see him allowed to do what he does best in the Championship.

But Sammut’s overall game has improved since his spell in Super League. He still has that magical unpredictability but combines it with composure when required.

7 – Martyn Ridyard

We all know that Garry Schofield doesn’t mince his words. So when he tipped Ridyard to play himself into England contention just over a year ago, you knew that was some compliment.

It never worked out in Super League – he was, perhaps unfairly, axed by Leigh after a poor display in round 1, and never got a real chance in the side thereafter.

But he earned respect as a Super League player during a short stint at Huddersfield, and many expected him to get a new club elsewhere.

Featherstone couldn’t believe their luck when they got the chance to sign him. After his performances this season, they probably still can’t.

6 – Ryan Brierley

The manner in which he burst onto the scene meant everyone has kept a close eye on Brierley’s career trajectory.

His motives behind a move to Toronto were heavily questioned, having finally got his move to Super League just 12 months earlier.

But since making that move he’s become a more complete player. The support play that leads to so many tries is still there, but his kicking game and controlling of a match has come to fruition.

Unfathomably underused at Huddersfield. the future may well see the 26-year-old and Super League reunite.

5 – Peter Mata’utia

Here’s a fun fact. Mata’utia nearly quit Rugby League at the end of last year.

How Leigh are thankful he didn’t.

The former Newcastle Knights ace joined the club ahead of this season and has been a standout star all year.

But since his transition into fullback, Leigh have come alive, his ability with the ball has been special at times, and he’s been a massive player for the competition.

4 – Gareth O’Brien

Everyone knew that Toronto’s capture of Gareth O’Brien was a huge statement of intent.

It’s early days in his Wolfpack career, of course, but he’s quickly repaying the hefty transfer fee paid.

O’Brien has added polish to Toronto’s backline. They attack with style and conviction, and it’s all come together since his arrival.

With six tries in eight games, O’Brien has scored plenty and assisted many more. When Toronto inevitably make Super League, they’ll already have a fullback with a proven track record at that level.

3 – Johnathon Ford

It’s the sign of a special player when you find yourself on the edge of your seat in anticipation whenever they’re on the ball.

That is exactly what the Cook Island international does.

In terms of raw Rugby League ability, Ford stands out as one of the best, not just in the Championship, but in the country.

And what’s so delightful about him is his willingness to put his head up and react on what he says. Whether it’s a chip over the top, a flashy long-range pass or a dart to the line, Ford is a box office attraction who sets pulses racing with his ad-hoc attack.

He’s so good at it too. His demeanour makes it appear that he’s not trying half the time, but it adds to his aura.

2 – Luke Briscoe

Had this list been put together last season, it’s not unreasonable to think Briscoe might not have ranked all too highly.

But his second-place finish is more than warranted this year after a quite incredible season that has seen an all-time try-scoring record equalled, a club record smashed and his star shine brighter than it ever has before.

It’s hard to think of a player in the British game that has seen their stock rise as high as Briscoe’s this year.

He is the ultimate finisher. In his try-scoring streak, he scored tries players at a higher level simply would not.

It came as no surprise to anyone when Super League clubs started chasing him. Fev will have a fight on their hands to keep him.

1 – Mark Kheirallah

It’s official. Our number one is Toulouse’s number one.

Few who’ve seen him will argue with his position on the countdown.

Strong with the ball, superb in defence, Kheirallah is an outstanding individual talent who could play at the very top.

He did just that at last year’s World Cup, and scored a length of the field effort against none other than Australia.

That put him on the world stage. At Championship level, he is the standout performer.