Craig Lingard admits Batley Bulldogs' budget means 'we should not be anywhere near the top four’
Lingard has led Batley to a Championship play-off semi-final and last year oversaw a stunning run to the Grand Final as the Bulldogs beat Featherstone Rovers in the semi-finals before losing to Leigh in the second-tier showpiece.
Batley have lost a handful of key men heading into the 2023 season, with full-back Luke Hooley joining Super League’s Leeds Rhinos while influential half-back Tom Gilmore has headed to his hometown club Widnes Vikings.
Ben White completed the prominent trio and Lingard admits that losing two of those three players has been a big blow.
The signing of former Wigan Warriors player Josh Woods has helped offset the losses of Hooley and Gilmore while Aidan McGowan has joined on a season-long loan from Huddersfield Giants.
"They were massively important for us. Tom Gilmore has a really intelligent rugby brain, he is really smart - a bit of a throwback half-back,” said Lingard.
"He knows how to manage a game and get a team around the field, you don't see half-backs like that anymore. He was very, very difficult to replace.
"We have brought Josh Woods in, it was our number one priority to replace Gilmore. So we are pleased we got him.
"When Luke Hooley came he was a really young kid but he turned into a strong, physical presence on the field. He was really smart in how he learnt about his game.
"He developed his running game more, when he came to us he wanted to find the miracle pass every time he got the ball. We got into him how he needed to run more.
"How those two have worked together has been a massive part of our success. Another part of that trio is Ben White, so to lose two out of those three was very, very difficult. Jimmy Meadows has trained the house down in pre-season and got man of the match in the Boxing Day game against Dewsbury, he is chomping at the bit and wants to be a regular starter. He has certainly put his hand up.
"We have brought Aidan McGowan in from Huddersfield on loan, he is not our player so it is not ideal as he can be called back at any time.
"As a coach you want to have that guarantee you will have someone for the season. It is a season-long loan but anything can happen.”
Lingard admits he has been disappointed by the club’s recruitment ahead of the 2023 campaign and worries a handful of injuries could leave his side struggling. He added: "I don't think we have brought as many numbers in as we have needed to be able to compete.
"If we get a few injuries we might be light on numbers. It is difficult when you do well one year but then the budget is reduced the following year.
"As players and as a coach, you want to aspire to keep doing well. So it has been a little bit disappointing trying to get the players we wanted."
Lingard feels that no side will dominate the division in the manner Leigh did last season – and reckons more than half of the teams could be in the mix for the top two to three places.
"It is a strange one this year because I don't think we are going to have a team like Leigh, who were by far a head and shoulders above everybody else last season,” he continued.
"I don't think we have got a team as strong as Leigh were. Toulouse have lost a lot of players and at the minute they don't seem to have brought a huge amount in.
"I don't think they will be as strong as they were last time they were in the Championship unless they have got some recruitment going on behind the scenes that we don't know about yet. Featherstone will be similar to last season. Their squad on paper looks a little bit stronger so they will be there or thereabouts.
"I think the quality of the division has increased, so rather than having one or two individual teams fighting at the top between themselves, I think you could have up to seven or eight teams who are battling for the top two or three positions.”
Batley have one of the lowest budgets in the division – and despite their recent success, Lingard would class a top-six finish as a “massive, massive” succcess this year.
"For us, when we are competing against others and the budgets they have compared to the budget we have - if we get into the play-offs it will be a success,” he added.
"We are fighting against the unrealistic expectation that we should be in the top four. We have got one of the lowest budgets in the division but by getting to a play-off semi-final and Championship Grand Final we have put that expectation on ourselves.
"When you look at the budgets, we shouldn't be anywhere near the top four. If we get into the top six, we would see it as a massive, massive success.”