PETER MARTINI continues the countdown to York City Knights' season by looking at their rival clubs in the Championship – and predicting their fortunes in 2013.

CHAMPIONS Sheffield Eagles kick off the 2013 Championship season tonight as they visit title hopefuls Halifax.

It is a cracking fixture to begin the campaign, picked by broadcaster Premier Sports as the first in their series of televised Thursday night games (7.30pm).

This is a new-look Championship set-up, with four clubs – Doncaster, Barrow, Workington and Whitehaven – having been promoted, and none relegated, making for a 14-team division as part of a reshuffled league.

Championship One now comprises nine teams, including newcomers Hemel Stags, Gloucestershire All Golds and Oxford Cavaliers, all expansion clubs rising out of the amateur game.

There is also a change to the Northern Rail Cup. This year, only Championship One teams will compete in the group stage, with the leading two from that joining the 14 Championship clubs in knockout rounds.

The other clubs in Championship One – Oldham, Rochdale, London Skolars, Gateshead, South Wales and North Wales – make for the most geographically diverse league in rugby league history.

Barrow Raiders
Last year: second in Championship One
Coach: Darren Holt
Ground: Craven Park
Miles from York: 113
Nearest train station: Barrow-in-Furness (change at Manchester) 0.5 miles

Just fell short in race for top spot in Championship One as well as in the grand final. But it was still a good season in the wake of the salary cap scandal and demotion of 2011. Have lost Andy Ballard (Swinton), Andy Bracek (Halifax) and Martin Ostler (retired) but recruitment of Leigh full-back Dean McGilvray and ex-Widnes forward Kurt Haggerty, among a smattering of up and coming youngsters, should compensate.

One to watch: Liam Harrison was Championship One’s top forward in 2012 and can also be devastating at centre.
Partnership club: none.
Prediction: The newcomers will need to gel quickly. But let’s face it, nobody likes going to Barrow. They should be okay.

Batley Bulldogs
Last year:
Coach: John Kear
Ground: Mount Pleasant
Miles from York: 34
Nearest train station: Batley (change at Leeds) 0.8 miles, Dewsbury (direct from York) 1.8 miles

Lost sought-after prop Alex Walmsley – a terrifying sight for opponents when running down the Mount Pleasant slope – to St Helens but Alex Rowe comes in from Sheffield to fill the void in a strong pack, which has also been augmented by York favourite John Davies. Winger Alex Brown has gone to Hull KR and full-back Ian Preece has retired, but wily old coach John Kear has bolstered his backs, not least with centre powerhouses Ayden Faal and ex-Knight Ryan Esders from Dewsbury. Crowd favourite George Flanagan also returns from the Rams. Scrum-half Gareth Moore is out till May but Tom Hemingway is an able deputy.

One to watch: full-back Miles Greenwood, returning to the second tier after a year with Oldham, boasts great pace.

Partnership club: Huddersfield Giants

Prediction: maybe their best chance of silverware comes in the Northern Rail Cup but Kear wants to be there or thereabouts in the league too.

Dewsbury Rams
Last year: seventh
Coach: Glenn Morrison
Ground: Tetley’s Stadium
Miles from York: 35
Nearest train station: Batley (change at Leeds) 1.8 miles; Dewsbury (direct from York) 2 miles

One-time York player-boss Paul Broadbent, the former GB star, was expected to get the head coach job last autumn but Rams appointed ex-Wakefield packman Glenn Morrison. He has brought in plenty of new players, perhaps the most notable being veteran PNG battleship Makali Aizue. Kiwi forward Dario Esposito, who flew to England last summer to play for York, will have a point to prove having not won a new deal with the Knights. Keeping key figures like Knights target Rob Spicer and James Craven is a boost but loss of kicking king Patch Walker, Ayden Faal and Ryan Esders, combined with inexperience at half-back, will be felt, even if they have signed the entire Bradford squad on dual-reg.

One to watch: prop Makali Aizue – it’s like trying to tackle a giant cannonball.
Partnership club: Bradford Bulls
Prediction: finishing seventh last year – a “failure” according to chairman Mark Sawyer – cost Warren Jowitt his coaching job, but Morrison will do well to beat that this year.

Last year: first in Championship One
Coach: Tony Miller
Ground: Keepmoat Stadium
Miles from York: 44
Nearest train station: Doncaster (direct from York) 2 miles

On a high after beating the odds to lift their first trophies – the Championship One League Leaders Shield and Grand Final silverware. The tight-knit squad is used to winning but it is relatively small and the new additions – including ex-Knights Dennis Tuffour, Brooke Broughton and Brett Waller, who joins his old mate and prolific Championship One try-scorer Lee Waterman in South Yorkshire – don’t have much Championship experience. They have also lost Tom Hodson (Featherstone) and Craig Lawton and Dean Colton (retired) and it’s not certain how much the partnership with Wakefield will help.

One to watch: Paul Cooke – the controversial former Super League star was an inspiration last season.
Partnership club: Wakefield Trinity Wildcats
Prediction: will want to continue on the crest of a wave but will a few early defeats see them swallowed by the surf?

Featherstone Rovers
Last year:
first, Grand Final runners-up
Coach: Daryl Powell
Ground: The Big Fellas Stadium (Post Office Road)
Miles from York: 31
Nearest train station: Featherstone (change at Leeds) 0.2 miles

Rovers have been the dominant force outside Super League for the last three years, backed by big bucks and with sights on a Super League licence. But the shock grand final loss to Sheffield last season (in addition to defeat in the Northern Rail Cup final) meant they have picked up only the one title in that time. Have lost inspirational skipper Stu Dickens (retirement), fellow prop Dom Maloney (Army) and Tangi Ropati (New Zealand), but remain potent in the pivots with Andy Ellis and Kyle Briggs signing permanent deals to join Andy Kain, Ben Kaye and Liam Finn, while the arrival of Lamont Bryan from London gives them yet another weapon. Consistently good on and off the field – they just need to turn regular season success into finals day triumph.

One to watch: new captain Liam Finn is seen by many as the best player in the division.
Partnership club: none.
Prediction: the team to beat again.

Last year: third
Coach: Karl Harrison
Ground: The Shay
Miles from York: 46
Nearest train station: Halifax (direct from York, or change at Leeds or Huddersfield) 0.5 miles

The departure of hooker Sean Penkywicz, one of the top players outside of Super League, is the biggest concern, but they will hope loose-forward/stand-off Scott Murrell, recruited from Hull KR (and a one-time York target), will bring new inspiration, and the fact Tony Tonks has made his move from Huddersfield permanent is a boost for an already strong pack, of which Yorkie Ross Divorty will hope to be a regular part. The addition of Rikki Sherriffe augments an already dangerous back line, and in Paul Handforth and Anthony Thackeray they have a fine half-back axis.

One to watch: Rob Worrincy is arguably the best winger outside of Super League.
Partnership club: none.
Prediction: won the Northern Rail Cup last year but missed out on the top two in the league – something they'll want to put right.

Hunslet Hawks
Last year: ninth
Coach: Barry Eaton
Ground: John Charles Stadium
Miles from York: 30
Nearest train station: Leeds (direct from York) 2.4 miles

Hunslet’s only wins last season came against York, with whom they were cut adrift at the foot of the table. They have a similar squad, bolstered by the returns from the Knights of Waine Pryce and James Houston, plus the recruitment of ex-York skipper Paul Hughes, swelling a sizeable contingent of ex-Knights in their ranks. Much will depend on Danny Grimshaw’s form and fitness at half-back but, with faith being put in a number of youngsters, strength in depth could be an issue unless they bag regular, quality dual-reg recruits from partner club Leeds.

One to watch: David March, a character York know well, still has tricks and knowhow in his locker as long as age doesn’t catch up with him.
Partnership club: Leeds Rhinos.
Prediction: York’s arch-rivals lack spending power and face a fight to avoid relegation. Either way, expect banter aplenty amid a love-hate relationship between Knights and Hawks fans.

Keighley Cougars
Last year: sixth
Player-coach: Paul March
Ground: Cougar Park
Miles from York: 42
Nearest train station: Keighley (change at Leeds) 0.7 miles

Former Knights player-boss Paul March has been tasked with continuing the fine work of Jason Demetriou, who has gone home to Australia after leading the team to promotion and consolidation in the Championship, but must do so without departed star men Sam Obst, Michael Korkidas and Semi Tadulala, plus retired hooker James Haythornthwaite. March seems set to play at loose-forward this year, leaving former Wigan starlet Scott Leatherbarrow to form a half-back partnership with Wales international Danny Jones. Paul White and Daley Williams add to a decent back line.

One to watch: new scrum-half Scott Leatherbarrow has shone enough in pre-season for player-coach March to give him his number seven shirt.
Partnership club: none.
Prediction: not enough to compete with the league’s upper crust and, given their losses, will do well to match last season’s finish, but should have enough to see off the poorer teams.

Leigh Centurions 
Last year: second
Coach: Paul Rowley
Ground: Leigh Sports Village
Miles from York: 82
Nearest train station: Atherton (change at Manchester) 3.9 miles

The loss of John Duffy, Tommy Gallagher and the retired Ricky Bibey has been more than offset by the recruitment of, among others, Swinton’s Adam Higson, Super League pair Simon Finnigan and Martin Aspinwall, and Halifax favourite Sean Penkywicz – one of the most exciting hookers outside the top tier. A resurgent outfit surprised some by finishing second last year – earning Paul Rowley the Coach of the Year accolade – but, now with a stronger squad on paper, it’ll be no surprise if they go as well, or even better, this year.

One to watch: Martin Aspinwall – former Wigan, Huddersfield and Hull back-rower is a Super League player playing in the Championship.
Partnership club: Wigan Warriors
Prediction: the bookies have Leigh down as Featherstone’s main title challengers, and bookies aren’t often wrong.

Sheffield Eagles
Last year:
fourth (grand final winners)
Coach: Mark Aston
Grounds: Bramall Lane (game against York will be be played here) and Don Valley Stadium
Miles from York: 58 (to Bramall Lane)
Nearest train station: Sheffield 0.9 miles (to Bramall Lane)

Surprise - and wonderful - winners of the title after a second successive march through the play-offs to the grand final from fourth place at the end of the regular season. Rarely rated among the league’s biggest hitters at the start of each season, they seem to prove doubters wrong come the business end of term. Stand-off Simon Brown, who kicked several teams to death last year, has gone to York with back-rower Sam Scott, but Patch Walker joins from Dewsbury to fill Brown’s boots and re-form a partnership with scrum-half Dom Brambani. The pack remains strong despite the loss of Alex Rowe, while overseas stars Quentin Laula-Togagae, Menzie Yere and Misi Taulapapa give devastating power on the fringes.

One to watch: no opposition centre relishes seeing Menzie Yere run towards, past or over him.
Partnership club: none.
Prediction: Play-off certainties but not among the league’s biggest hitters. Erm, where have we heard that before?

Swinton Lions
Last year:
Coach: Steve McCormack
Ground: Leigh Sports Village
Miles from York: 82
Nearest train station: Atherton (change at Manchester) 3.9 miles

The only team the Knights beat last year have lost key men in Ian Mort, Mike Morrison, Dale Cuniffe (all to Australia), Alex Hurst (London Broncos), Karl Ashall (Halifax), Adam Higson (Leigh) and Tom Armstrong (Sheffield). They have brought in cover, possibly the most notable being Andy Ballard and Josh Barlow, but coach McCormack heads into the season with a threadbare squad. The new partnership with Super League giants Warrington provides some leeway but it is risky to rely on it.

One to watch: full-back Richie Hawkyard is always good to watch – unless he’s jinking past you.
Partnership club: Warrington Wolves.
Prediction: much will depend on success of the dual-reg set-up with Warrington, otherwise the Lions might be more like pussycats.

Last year: fourth in Championship One
Coach: Dave Woods
Ground: The Recre
Miles from York: 141
Nearest train station: Whitehaven (via Preston or Manchester and Barrow, or via Newcastle and Carlisle) 0.9 miles

Aussie Dave Woods has made a few signings that raised eyebrows since taking the reins, not least the skilful Neil Thorman, another ex-Knight in York-born Lee Paterson, and ex-Super League forwards Paul Jackson and Sebastien Martins. PNG prop Rodney Pora also promises to add power up front when he arrives. However, Haven didn’t pull up trees last year in Championship One and ex-Super League half-back Jamie Rooney can frustrate as often as he inspires. Woods, though, will hope his links with St Helens can bring in decent dual-reg players. He’ll want to start with a bang, too, as they host York first up, offering him the chance to avenge his controversial departure from the Knights.

One to watch: Jessie Joe Parker gives the team punch and peril in the threequarters.
Partnership club: St Helens.
Prediction: Wily Woods might just shock a few people in their battle to consolidate Championship status.

Workington Town
Last year:
third in Championship One
Coaches: Gary Charlton and Martin Oglanby
Ground: Derwent Park
Miles from York: 136
Nearest train station: Workington (change at Newcastle and Carlisle) 0.3 miles

Town have some experience in ex-Super League front-row pair Ewan Dowes and Jamie Thackray and veteran Peter Lupton, but only a few others in the squad will be widely known outside Cumbria. As York have found out, there’s a notable difference between the Championship and Championship One and third place in the lower tier last year might not count for much in this division. Not certain yet what quality they can expect on dual-reg from Widnes either.

One to watch: Aussie Jarrad Stack is often the pick of Town’s pack.
Partnership club: Widnes.
Prediction: will be desperate to finish above Whitehaven but scraping points at home will be key if they are to avoid the drop, never mind outdo their fierce rivals.