The new rugby league season kicks off next month and excitement is building ahead of a huge year for the sport. The World Cup takes place in the autumn of 2022 as Shaun Wane’s England side bid to rule the roost on home soil.
But first there are nine months of thrilling action in the Super League, Championship, League 1 and the Challenge Cup.
McDermott bidding to recreate Leeds glories with part-time Fev
Eyebrows were raised when former Leeds Rhinos boss Brian McDermott was appointed as Featherstone Rovers’ new head coach at the end of last season.
McDermott remains the most successful coach in Super League history having guided aristocratic Leeds to four Grand Final victories, two Challenge Cups, a League Leaders’ Shield and a World Club Challenge win during his Headingley reign.
And yet here he was taking over at Featherstone, who have never made it into Super League but have proved one of the most progressive sides in the Championship during the past decade or so.
The team from a former pit village in deepest, darkest West Yorkshire are favourites to earn promotion to the promised land this season.
Having lost the last two Million Pound Games, against Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique in 2019 and 2021 respectively, Rovers look a decent bet to finally get there this time around.
McDermott is belligerent, uncompromising and can be downright confrontational.
But he is a proven winner, that cannot be denied, and his track record speaks for itself.
Competition sponsors Betfred make McDermott’s team 5/4 to win this year’s promotion decider.
Yet not far behind Rovers in the betting stakes are Leigh Centurions, who Betfred have down as 6/4 to emerge as the promoted team.
Leigh were in Super League last term but were relegated with a dismal two wins all season.
They have, though, since appointed former Wigan Warriors boss Adrian Lam as their new head coach and the race for promotion seems a straightforward two-way fight between Featherstone and Leigh.
Halifax are progressing and rated as third favourites at 11/1 with Betfred, who make ambitious York City Knights 14/1.
Bradford Bulls – remember them? – are out at 16/1 but the smart money is on Featherstone or Leigh.
And it is too close to call, but Lam’s Centurions might just have the edge as well as being a slightly better price.
Further down the pyramid in League 1, we have the intriguing addition to the league of newly-formed Cornwall RLFC.
Cornwall will have a professional rugby league team in the third tier after the owners of the shelved Ottawa Aces operation opted to set up the new venture in the south west.
Cornwall Rugby League Football Club will base themselves at Penryn’s Memorial Ground.
They have full membership of the Rugby Football League, having taken on Hemel Stags’ licence with the governing body.
They are 33/1 with Betfred to win promotion with Keighley Cougars and Swinton Lions joint favourites at 7/2.
Kear issues player warning over vaccinations
John Kear has backed Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp’s stance on Covid-19 and says he will urge the Bradford Bulls hierarchy not to sign any player who refuses to be vaccinated.
The Odsal head coach said at least 80% of his players had been vaccinated but revealed that positives cases had been returned within the camp following the Christmas period.
The Rugby Football League recently issued a stark warning to the near 20% of Super League and Championship players who remain unjabbed heading into the 2022 season.
The governing body said they were having a “material impact” on the sport’s preparations for the new season by not getting vaccinated.
Klopp, meanwhile, claimed football clubs will be reluctant to sign unvaccinated players as the Covid crisis continues to affect top-class sport nearly two years into the pandemic.
Klopp has been vocal in encouraging people to get jabbed and Kear said: “I’m going to recommend to the board here at Bradford that we don’t sign anybody or offer contract extensions to any player who isn’t prepared to have the vaccinations.
“I just think it’s putting other people in the group at unnecessary risk of losing one of your commodities, which is your players, when you’re paying them to supposedly play.
“Having listened to Jurgen Klopp, I have thought about this a great deal because I do feel we’re responsible employers at Bradford Bulls.
“But we’ve also got a responsibility to look after the people who are toeing the line and are being fully vaccinated – we need to look after them and their families.
“Obviously if it spreads between work colleagues, the work colleague goes back home and there is a possibility of the virus then spreading within families.
“Therefore we’ve got a responsibility as employers, but I think society has got a responsibility as well.
“It is very important for clubs to have as many players as possible who have had the full quota of jabs so that we aren’t missing vital time in pre-season or have players unavailable for games.”
Dragons a decent bet to lift the Challenge Cup
New life should be breathed into this season’s Challenge Cup with the final set to be played at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
It has also been brought forward to earlier in the season, with the final to be played on Saturday, May 28.
Moving the game from Wembley to Spurs for one year only will add intrigue to the occasion for supporters but the real interest will, of course, be dictated by which two teams reach the final.
St Helens won it last year, beating Castleford Tigers to claim their first Challenge Cup since 2008.
Most bookies make the defending Super League champions favourites to retain rugby league’s oldest and most famous trophy.
Thus there is little value in odds of 3/1 with Paddy Power or Saints to win the Challenge Cup again.
Why not have a little punt on Catalans Dragons, who in 2018 lifted the trophy for the first time, after beating Warrington Wolves at an emotionally fraught Wembley.
Steve McNamara’s side, who finished top of the table and reached a maiden Super League Grand Final in 2021, are a tempting 8/1 to win the Challenge Cup with Paddy Power.
The Dragons have recruited strongly again during the off-season and will fancy their chances of lifting the trophy at Tottenham before turning their attention back to the small matter of winning a first Super League title.