More the merrier as Championship rivals kick-off their new campaign in January

Sheffield Eagles celebrate victory
Sheffield Eagles celebrate victory
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A NEW format means the Championship season will kick-off earlier than ever in 2013 and now run largely in alignment with Super League.

Grand Final winners Sheffield Eagles begin the defence of their title at Northern Rail Cup victors Halifax on Thursday, January 31, the night before Super League champions Leeds Rhinos open up against Hull FC.

Ordinarily, the Championship campaign does not kick-off until mid-March, with clubs firstly playing four games in the Northern Rail Cup group stages.

However, given the division has been enlarged from 10 to 14 sides in 2013 – producing eight extra fixtures per side – and because of some historically one-sided NRC contests against Championship One outfits, there has been a major re-think.

Championship clubs will now, instead, go straight to the knock-out part of the Northern Rail Cup in May, facilitating that early start to the league.

Only the Championship One clubs, minus newcomers Oxford, will be involved in the NRC group stages which begin on the weekend of March 2-3.

The eight sides involved will compete in two groups of four with the top team in each then progressing to make up a last 16.

In releasing the full fixture list today, the Rugby Football League describes 2013 as the “most important Championships season ever”.

Of course, outside its top division, the forthcoming year will witness a campaign of unfamiliarity for many.

The governing body has overseen the introduction of three new clubs to Championship One, all of whom come from areas not naturally associated with rugby league.

They have ventured away from the heartlands to source clubs with fresh appeal, resulting in certainly the most geographically diverse competition yet.

All eyes will be on how that development progresses given Northampton – initially planned as one of four newcomers – withdrew three months ago without a ball even being kicked citing they would not be ready for the jump into the semi-professional game.

The RFL are confident, though, that the remaining trio will enhance the competition which starts on Saturday March 29, when University of Gloucestershire All Golds play their first-ever professional league fixture against fellow debutants Oxford Rugby League.

Hemel Stags, who complete the triumvirate of new arrivals to Championship One, begin their campaign away to London Skolars.

All three were welcomed into the Championships by existing members during a meeting held in Huddersfield on Wednesday which looked ahead to the 2013 season with the clubs forming a working group to look at enhancing the league’s major events.

Those include, clearly, the restructured Northern Rail Cup and RFL chief operating officer Ralph Rimmer said: “There is a real sense of anticipation surrounding the 2013 campaign and the introductions of Hemel, Gloucester and Oxford to the professional ranks has generated real interest in the Championship One competition.

“These clubs all offer the sport a unique opportunity to take games into areas where we haven’t been before and the potential to attract new fans, players and volunteers is something that we are all very excited about.

“With new clubs, new players and three new-look competitions, I believe this is going to be the most exciting and important Championships season ever.

“The enthusiasm with which all three clubs have embraced their introduction to the professional ranks has been a real boost to the Championships and with those clubs joining North Wales Crusaders, South Wales Scorpions, Gateshead Thunder, Rochdale and Oldham, Championship One is certainly pushing the game’s geographical boundaries.

“With the Championship also embracing changes and expanding to become a 14-team competition it promises to be one of the most competitive leagues we have ever seen with all 14 clubs capable of beating one another.

“The Northern Rail Cup also promises to deliver an intriguing competition right from the off with the Championship One clubs battling it out to earn a spot in the knock-out stages.

“With Premier Sports back on board for the 2013 campaign, I feel very confident that we will all be treated to some top-class action throughout the months ahead.”

Sheffield’s opener at Halifax will be the first of more than 30 contests televised once more by Premier Sports – the broadcaster whose innovative coverage made such an excellent impact in its debut this year.

Elsewhere, Featherstone Rovers – beaten in both the Championship and Northern Rail Cup finals last season – start out what they hope will be a more productive campaign with a home fixture against Leigh Centurions on Sunday February 3.

Glenn Morrison, the former Bradford Bulls and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats star, begins his competitive reign as Dewsbury Rams head coach with a game against newly-promoted Doncaster, who finished 2012 as Championship One table-toppers and Grand Final victors.

John Kear, who releases his autobiography this week, sees his Batley Bulldogs entertain Keighley Cougars who are now led by one of his former proteges – player-coach Paul March who has replaced another ex-Wakefield star Jason Demetriou.

Gary Thornton is another new coach in 2013, the former Batley chief back in the Championship with York City Knights after a spell in charge of Castleford Tigers Under-20s.

His first appointment for the side that finished bottom sees a trip to newly-promoted Whitehaven while Hunslet Hawks, who came in second last, start out with the visit of another Cumbrian opponent returning to the Championship in the shape of Barrow Raiders.