GARY THORNTON has warned that a buoyant Gateshead Thunder are poised to provide his injury-hit York City Knights side with their “toughest game of the season” so far.
The Tynesiders come to Huntington Stadium tomorrow (3pm) sitting only sixth in Championship One but their recent tie-up with rugby union big-guns Newcastle Falcons and an influx of players make them a dangerous prospect - and, according to Thornton, one of the dark horses for the sole promotion place come the play-offs.
Former New Zealand Warriors half-back Jordan Meads is the latest new recruit to the Thunder revolution, although it is yet to be confirmed whether he will go straight into the side on his arrival from down under.
Meads, who began his career in Melbourne Storm’s academy, was a star man as the Warriors’ juniors won the Toyota Cup in 2011. He then had a season in France with Avignon and this year has scored 116 points in five games for Sunshine Coast outfit Kawana Dolphins.
“I think this is going to be the toughest game of the season with the signings they’ve made,” said Thornton.
“Gateshead are now a team on the rise. They have got a genuine partnership with Newcastle Falcons which they’re benefitting from and they’re able to attract better players.”
The Knights, who stayed second in the table despite last week’s reverse at Gloucestershire All Golds, will be without Jonny Presley (calf) and James Morland (injury), who both played on through injury last week, as well as in-form dual-reg full-back Ben Reynolds, who was called up by parent club Castleford for their Super League game at Wigan last night.
No other dual-reg players have been offered, while Lee Paterson, Greg Minikin, Nathan Freer, Jake Joynt, Jason Golden, Kriss Brining, Josh Nathaniel and Jack Iley all remain sidelined, and experienced centre James Ford is rated only 50-50 to return.
However, fit-again prop Iain Morrison is back after seven games out.
James Haynes and Benn Hardcastle also return - the latter against his former club - while George Elliott is in contention too.
Gateshead - who have a beneficial dual-reg partnership with Hull KR, from whom they seconded coach Stanley Gene - have recently brought in on loan former KR starlet Louis Sheriff and Joel Farrell from Dewsbury and ex-Knights winger Lee Mapals from Hunslet.
Another former Knight, Paul Stamp, and loose-forward Sonny Esslemont made the Championship One Team of the Week after their win at Oxford last Sunday, while skipper Jason Payne is an obvious danger, sitting second in the league’s try-scoring charts with 11.
Said Thornton: “They now have Louis Sheriff at full-back, who has Super League experience, their dual-reg players from Hull KR are playing well, Lee Mapals has added pace and strength out wide and in Jamie Rooney they have someone who can dictate play.
“The combination of Rooney and Matt Beharrell at half-back is good and Paul Stamp at hooker is going well.
“They’ve added strength, pace and guile. This will be a really tough game.
“They will be dark horses. Where they are in the table belies how good they are now. At the start of the season they did not have the squad to compete (for promotion) but they’ve improved since then.”
Knights: from Haynes, B Dent, Ford, Saltonstall, Elliott, E Smith, B Hardcastle, P Smith, Brennan, Lee, Bell, Mallinder, Roche, Aldous, Carter, Backhouse, Pickets, Morrison, Craig.
Thunder: from Louis Sheriff, Lee Mapals, Joe Brown, Chris Heil, Jacob Blades, Matty Beharrell, Jamie Rooney, Matt Barron, Paul Stamp, Ricky Hough, Jason Payne, Sam Bowering, Sonny Esslemont, Josh Stoker, Iain Murray, Joel Farrell, Joe Hodgson, Robbie Meads.
Referee: Adam Gill (Widnes)
• CASTLEFORD Tigers coach Daryl Powell has signed a new five-year contract at Wheldon Road.
The 48-year-old, a former coaching consultant at York City Knights, was appointed as Ian Millward's replacement last May and will now stay with the Tigers until the end of the 2019 season.
Powell, who previously led Featherstone Rovers to consecutive League Leaders Shields in the Championship, has this season guided the Tigers, who have a dual-registration partnership with York, to third in the Super League table and the Challenge Cup semi-finals.