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Matthew Naylor steps into the unknown and casts his eye over the rugby league outposts and the sides that will look to stop the Knights bouncing straight back up.
Who are they?: One of the original expansion clubs, Thunder formed as a Super League franchise in 1998 but a successful first season ended in financial strife and a shambolic merger with Hull. A new club emerged from the wreckage but has endured various administrative problems since, albeit getting through them all with the help of a vociferous band of supporters keen to keep rugby league on Tyneside. Gateshead ended last season strongly but finished just out of the play-offs. They have a new head coach – seconded from Hull KR – in Papua New Guinea legend Stanley Gene, whose real age is one of world sport’s biggest mysteries. They play home games at the multi-purpose arena and three-time European Athletics Team Championship host, the cavernous Gateshead International Stadium, known as Thunderdome in rugby circles.
Last year: 7th.
Coach: Stanley Gene.
Miles from York: 82.
Player to watch: Chris Heil. The controversial centre spent last season on dual-registration from Hull KR, but now joins Gateshead full-time. Brings an Super League upbringing if his ego can be kept in check.
Prediction: It will take hard work and luck if they are to make the play-offs.
Who are they?: One of the three new teams introduced to Championship One in 2013, the Stags had the most successful season of the trio as they bound into the play-offs. Promotion dream was cut short by London Skolars, but regular-season victories over both the teams that would go on to be promoted, Rochdale and North Wales Crusaders, showed they are not to be taken lightly.
Last year: 5th.
Coach: Troy Perkins.
Ground: Pennine Way.
Miles from York: 189.
Player to watch: Barry-John Swindells. The Stags’ club captain is a reliable performer.
Prediction: As much as their momentum from last year could carry them into the play-offs again, they should also be wary of second-season syndrome.
Who are they?: The Hawks are one of the oldest clubs in Championship One, having been founded in 1883, and are the Knights’ bitterest of rivals. The South Leeds outfit came down from the Championship last season along with their Huntington Stadium foes, against whom they have held the upper hand in recent years. Both teams were promoted the last time they both played in this division in 2010 – Hunslet as champions and York as play-off winners. Hunslet are title favourites this season and their recruitment shows they are desperate for an immediate return to the second tier.
Last year: 13th in Championship
Coach: Barry Eaton.
Ground: South Leeds Stadium.
Miles from York: 31.
Player to watch: Thomas Coyle. The 25-year-old half-back and sibling James are creative forces in the Hawks’ ranks. If the brothers can kick on again, the Hawks could dish out several drubbings.
Prediction: York’s biggest threat to promotion and pre-season favourites for a reason.
Who are they?: Based in North London, up the other end of White Hart Lane from Tottenham Hostpur’s stadium, the Skolars joined the league in 2003, debuting in the same season as the re-formed York City Knights. They are now bossed by former Harlequins player ‘Big’ Joe Mbu, right. At 30, he is the youngest coach in the division. He took them to the play-offs for the first time in their history in 2013, but their strong post-season campaign was abruptly ended by Oldham. Kicking off this season against Oxford, followed by one of their two bye weeks, will give the Londoners a relaxed settling-in period to 2014.
Last year: 4th.
Coach: Joe Mbu.
Ground: New River Stadium.
Miles from York: 208.
Player to watch: Lamont Bryan. Signed last month from Championship side Featherstone, Jamaican centre Bryan has the strength and speed to worry any defence.
Prediction: Anything less than another play-off berth would be seen as a disappointing drop back.
Who are they?: At almost 140 years old, Oldham have an extensive and successful history, including three Challenge Cup successes, but are still hunting their first major honours since reforming under their current guise in 1997. Under former England international Scott Naylor’s guidance, Oldham finished second last season with the best away record in Championship One. Players, staff and fans alike will still be smarting after losing their play-off showdown against arch-rivals Rochdale, though they must be used to it by now having lost in five of the last seven grand finals, including to York in a 2010 surprise.
Last year: 2nd.
Coach: Scott Naylor.
Miles from York: 67.
Player to watch: Tom Whitehead. The young full-back has big shoes to fill this season with Richard Lepori’s departure for Australia, but coach Naylor is said to have a great deal of faith in him.
Prediction: Play-offs? Definitely. Grand final? Possibly. Promotion? Nah, more knockout pain.
Who are they?: As one of the three teams new to Championship One last season, Oxford surprised many by scraping a play-off place. Decent defensively, the Iffley Road club earned a reputation for grinding out narrow wins against some of the league’s better teams. Coach Tony Benson has previously coached Oldham and London Skolars, taking the former to three Championship One grand finals.
Last year: 6th.
Coach: Tony Benson.
Ground: Iffley Road.
Miles from York: 189.
Player to watch: Alex Thompson. The former Warrington forward brings much-needed Super League club experience to the fledgling Oxford squad. Missed a large part of 2013 through injury, so has a point to prove.
Prediction: Only needed five wins to reach the play-offs last season, but could be a tough ask this time around. Sixth or seventh at best.
South Wales Scorpions
Who are they?: Now based just outside Neath in Maesteg, the Scorpions, born of the Crusaders’ switch to North Wales, qualified for the play-offs in their debut season in 2010 but have disappointed since. Now in their new home at Llynfi Road, and under new management, expectation has again risen. The Welshmen got off to a flier last season when they put the agony of opening-day defeat against rivals North Wales Crusaders behind them to win three of their next four games. But they won only two of their last 11 to finish second bottom.
Last year: 8th.
Coach: Dave Clark.
Ground: Llynfi Road.
Miles from York: 272.
Player to watch: Barrie Phillips. The 27-year-old second-row recently re-signed from Cardiff Demons for his second spell with the Scorpions. Tireless work-rate will again see him loved by the South Wales faithful.
Prediction: Outside play-off shot, but if they learn lessons of 2013, they are dark horses.
University of Gloucestershire All Golds
Who are they?: Having risen out of student rugby league to enter the semi-pro ranks in 2013, the All Golds – founded by Lionel Hurst, one of the men behind the old York 9s tournament – endured a baptism of fire and finished bottom of Championship One with only two wins all year. The Cheltenham outfit, an outpost rugby league club in union heartland, travel north to Huntington Stadium for the opening game of 2014 on Sunday looking to improve on last season’s role as basement boys, and a couple of eye-catching signings suggest they don’t want wooden spoon woe this time. Former New Zealand Maori international Brad Hepi is head coach and made a handful of cameo appearances aged 45 last year.
Last year: 9th.
Coach: Brad Hepi.
Ground: Prince of Wales Stadium.
Miles from York: 184.
Player to watch: Craig Cook. The 30-year-old former Super League hooker, who signed this week, brings much-needed experience to the youthful All Golds squad. Championship Hooker of the Year accolade and 20 tries while with Sheffield in 2010 is proof of his ability.
Prediction: Rank outsiders.