Restructure sees ambitious clubs grasp their chance to move on up to top-flight

Featherstone Rovers' Paul Wood. Picture: Tony Johnson
Featherstone Rovers' Paul Wood. Picture: Tony Johnson
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The chance to earn promotion to Super League has opened up opportunities for Championship clubs to flex their financial muscles, writes

Dave Craven.

IT is a sign of the Championship’s growing appeal that Featherstone Rovers’ capture of former Great Britain prop Garreth Carvell last week barely caused a ripple.

That is in no way derogatory towards Carvell, the burly prop who has enjoyed such an excellent career so far, winning the Challenge Cup on four occasions and also featuring in three Super League Grand Finals.

Indeed, ordinarily, a part-time club such as Featherstone securing such an established international would be headline news.

However, ahead of 2015’s league restructure, the whole landscape in the lower divisions is changing and at a rate faster than you can say “New Era”.

It means, therefore, that a plethora of stars are readying to ply their trade in the second tier, where the standards – already noticeably improved in recent years – are rising all the time.

Of course, the headline, marquee, big-name arrival – call it what you will – is Leigh Centurions’ snaring of cult ex-New Zealand forward Fuifui Moimoi.

Bizarrely, the bulldozing, dreadlocked prop is perhaps most famously known in these parts for being sat on his backside by an 18-year-old Sam Burgess as the then-Bradford Bulls player made an instant impression during his Great Britain debut against the Kiwis at Huddersfield in 2007.

However, ordinarily, it is Moimoi who has wrecked defences during more than 200 NRL games for Parramatta Eels, a colourful figure rated as one of the sport’s top forwards, and so his capture, even aged 35, serves as a real coup for the Championship Grand Final winners.

Not long ago, few could have imagined the high-profile Tongan World Cup star ever bringing his uncompromising style to places like Dewsbury, Batley, Workington and Whitehaven but that is the case in 2015.

And there are so many others, too. Featherstone, who like Leigh are keen on earning promotion to Super League next season, have not only signed Carvell but his former Warrington team-mate and fellow ex-Great Britain prop Paul Wood as well.

Furthermore, stand-off Paul Sykes, who was part of England’s 2008 World Cup squad in Australia and New Zealand, has also moved to Post Office Road from Wakefield Trinity.

Sykes is not over the hill; he is still only 33 and started 22 Super League games for the Wildcats last season.

Likewise, his former Bradford team-mate Jamie Langley, who was also in that same England World Cup squad, has joined Sheffield Eagles after an injury-ruined time at Hull KR.

The industrious loose forward, who won the 2005 Grand Final with the Bulls, is just 31 and will offer so much experience and professionalism to the ambitious South Yorkshire club.

There is certainly a common theme running through many Championship outfits.

Jason Crookes, 24, may have struggled at Hull FC of late but the ex-Bradford winger did play in a Challenge Cup final just 18 months ago.

He will represent Dewsbury Rams now, hoping to curb the ill-discipline that has stymied his progress, and the West Yorkshire club have seen some other familiar Super League faces join their ranks in recent years with Wayne Godwin and Karl Pryce both linking up with Glenn Morrison.

Halifax have signed the ex-Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds prop Richard Moore, 34, while former Castleford and Huddersfield second-row Steve Snitch, 31, has returned from Australia to play for Doncaster.

A combination of factors has led to the competition’s renaissance. There has been no mention so far of the fact both Bradford and London Broncos will be in the Championship this season after relegation from Super League was introduced for the first time since 2007.

Given both those clubs are retaining full-time squads, have a bigger slice of central funds and have set out their stall to immediately return to the elite, the rest of the division recognises they must improve themselves to have any chance of challenging.

Bradford and London have not only retained much of their Super League personnel but brought in other top level players as well.

For example, the Bulls have signed Paul Clough from St Helens, a 27-year-old forward with more than 150 Super League games under his belt including four Grand Finals, plus the France international Jean-Phillippe Baille from Catalan.

Similarly, London have completed some canny recruitment by bringing in ex-Leeds and Warrington full-back Richard Mathers from Wakefield and the reliable second-row Rhys Lovegrove, who many Hull KR fans would have loved to have seen retained at Craven Park.

With Super League reduced from 14 clubs to 12 it is only natural that some of its talent will filter down and progressive Championship clubs realise such players can greatly enhance their prospects of success.

Given the chance of automatic promotion has opened up again, after six years of the licence process limited that potential, the rewards are potentially great.

Leigh, who were so dominant last season losing just one game and have turned full-time in readiness for 2015, look to be genuine contenders to bid for elevation when the season enters its Qualifiers stage after 23 rounds.

At that point, the bottom four of Super League couple with the leading quarter in the Championship to play seven more games to decide who plays where in 2016.

The top three of the mini-division go up, while fourth play fifth in the £1m match to decide the final place.

Paul Rowley’s Leigh side feel they can compete with the likes of Bradford and London to force their way in and it will be fascinating to see if any of the Championship clubs can prosper.

The odds are stacked against the second tier clubs – their salary cap is just £1m compared to Super League’s £1.8m and only three of them are fully professional –but, essentially, and in the worst case scenario, at least one club will be just 80 minutes from promotion when it comes to that crucial fourth versus fifth contest.

Given the calibre of some of the additions made over the winter, it should be no surprise at all if at least one does, indeed, succeed.