PREVIEWS to the matches on the opening weekend of the Championship.
Halifax v Sheffield Eagles (7.30pm Premier Sports)
Halifax coach Karl Harrison insists his squad is ready for Thursday’s Championship kick off against champions Sheffield Eagles.
Harrison’s men host last year’s Grand Final winners in front of the Premier Sports cameras, seven days after drawing 18-18 with Batley Bulldogs in their last pre-season friendly.
Harrison said: “It’s a big challenge. It’s the first game of the season and both teams will be ready and up for it.
“We’ve been weather affected and we’re maybe a bit behind where we’d like to be, but we’re looking forward to getting going now. We’ve trained ever so well this week.”
On Sheffield, Harrison said: “They’ve had a stable squad for the last few years, built on a big forward pack and few Islanders who can make things happen.
“They’re a very dangerous team, both in the middle and on the fringe, and we’ll be tested defensively right across our line.”
Long-term injury absentees Mick Nanyn and Iain Morrison are Harrison’s only unavailable players.
Eagles travel without Joe Hirst (broken hand), but could include Quentin Laulu-Togagae, who has made a quick recovery from knee surgery last month.
Sheffield coach Mark Aston said: “We planted the flag last year and now it’s time to back it up. It’s going to be tough, because there are a lot of quality teams and there are more games. There’ll be a lot of teams trying to knock you off.
“We enjoyed winning the Grand Final and pre-season has been great, but it’s back to business now.”
Batley Bulldogs v Keighley Cougars (2.00pm)
Batley Bulldogs coach John Kear believes Paul March’s influence at Keighley Cougars will guarantee a fierce encounter on Sunday.
Kear, who coached March at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, said: “I expect them to be very competitive because I know what Marchy is like.
“He would compete with his own shadow, and I’m certain that will be reflected in how they play.
“If you’re going to get anything out of Keighley this year then you’ll have to earn it.”
Danny Maun and Gareth Moore are unavailable for the Bulldogs, who are otherwise at full strength for their first league fixture of 2013.
Kear added: “Keeping people fresh will be a big challenge this year, but we’re happy to embrace that and the players certainly will be.”
New Cougars coach Paul March is already battling against a number of injury worries ahead of the first game of the season.
Brendan Rawlins (broken finger) and Ben Stead (broken cheekbone) are both four weeks away from a return, Matt Bailey (broken leg) is out for two months and Jamaine Wray (back) is also missing this week.
However, March is determined his side will compete. He said: “Defensively we’ll be similar to last year, but we’re going to be more expansive with the ball in hand.
“We came sixth last year, and there’s more pressure on us this time after the season we had last year, but we’re ready for that.”
Doncaster v Dewsbury Rams (3.00pm)
Doncaster coach Tony Miller will check on Grant Edwards (concussion) and Craig Robinson (calf) before finalising his team for the club’s return to the Championship.
Miller believes the key to Doncaster’s chances this year will be their form at the Keepmoat Stadium.
He said: “We’ll target out home games and then try and pick up as many wins and bonus points away from home as possible.
“We know it’s going to be tough, but I think we’ll be OK.”
New Doncaster Rams coach Glenn Morrison insists his side will be entertainers in 2013.
The former Bradford, Wakefield and Parramatta star has spent the off-season encouraging his squad to have belief in their attacking ability.
He said: “Defence is a major part of winning any game, and we’ve worked on our defensive structures, but I also want the guys to play what they see and entertain the crowd.
“The fans want to see tries scored, and we’ll be throwing the ball around when we get the chance.”
Only Austin Buchanan (knee) and Ben Jones (groin) are missing from Dewsbury’s squad, forcing Morrison into some difficult early decisions.
“Unfortunately some blokes will have to miss out. They’ve all done well in pre-season, but we can only pick 17 come Sunday.
“Doncaster will be very tough, but we want to try to come out of the blocks and put in a good performance ourselves. It should be a good one for the fans to come and watch.”
Featherstone Rovers v Leigh Centurions (3.00pm)
Featherstone Rovers coach Daryl Powell cannot contain his excitement ahead of Sunday’s match with Leigh Centurions and the start of the new Championship season.
Rovers’ pre-season preparations have included a four-day warm weather training camp in Alicante.
Powell said: “It’s an ideal opening encounter. You’re not limping into the season; you’re going crash, bang, wallop straight into it. Hopefully we’ll go well.”
Leigh coach Paul Rowley will assess the fitness of four unnamed members of his squad before finalising his team for the trip to West Yorkshire.
Rowley said: “Featherstone will be one of the pace-setters again. Liam Finn is a massive influence for them and he gets better with age.”
However, Rowley is tipping new signings Martin Aspinwall and Sean Penkywicz to make big impacts for the Centurions.
He said: “You know what you’re going to get from Martin – he’s a strong guy, he gives 100 per cent and he gets through a lot of work.
“Penky has been one of the league’s top performers for years. He’s been at one club for eight years, so it’ll take a bit of time for our players to adjust to him, but he’s destructive on his day and that’s why we’ve brought him in.”
Hunslet Hawks v Barrow Raiders (3.00pm)
Hunslet Hawks coach Barry Eaton is warning his players to brace themselves for a huge challenge from newly promoted Barrow on Sunday.
The Raiders start life in the Championship with a trip to West Yorkshire to face the Hawks, and Eaton is convinced Barrow will be brimming with confidence.
Eaton said: “I’ve pondered over the last couple of weeks whether it’s the best or worst time to get a newly promoted team.
“They’ll be enthusiastic and as mentally strong and tough as you’d expect at any point of the season. It’s probably not the best time to play them, but the slight advantage in our favour is the fact we’re at home.”
Former Bradford junior Callum Windley is missing for Hunslet after suffering a double fractured cheekbone.
Barrow Raiders coach Darren Holt has a selection headache as the fitness of five forwards continues to be in doubt ahead of Sunday’s match.
Ruairi McGoff, Nathan Mossop and Andrew Dawson all have knee problems, while Jamie Butler (wrist) and Jack Spencer (ankle) are also battling to be fit.
Holt said: “It’s going to be tough picking this first squad. There are a lot of decisions to make.”
Swinton Lions v Workington Town (3.00pm)
Swinton Lions coach Steve McCormack has been dealt an early blow with the news that Chaz I’Anson faces up to three weeks on the sidelines with a broken thumb.
But McCormack’s focus remains on starting well against newly-promoted Workington Town in Sunday’s Championship clash.
McCormack said: “It’s down to business and there are never any easy games in this competition.
“There’s no settling in period where you can get a few games under your belt and work on a few combinations.
“It’s straight into the firing line and that makes it even more exciting.”
Town travel without Graeme Mattinson, Dan Rooney, Jarrad Stack and Elliott Miller, who are all recovering from off-season surgery.
Workington coach Gary Charlton said: “Coming into the Championship is a big step-up, and a lot of our boys haven’t played at this standard week-in, week-out, but they’re looking forward to it.
“It’s all about the speed of things in this division. We’ve got a tough bunch of lads and the physical side of it won’t bother them.”
Whitehaven v York City Knights (3.00pm)
Dave Woods believes Whitehaven are ready for the step up as they prepare for life in the Championship.
The former Gateshead, Castleford and York coach is gearing up for his first competitive game in charge of the Cumbrian club.
And he insists his men are ready for the challenge York City Knights will pose on Sunday.
Woods said: “What we’ve been doing in training has all been about replicating how quick and tough it will be in the Championship.
“This year you’ve got to make sure you’ve done everything right in pre-season so that you can hit the ground running.”
French international Seb Martins could make his home debut for Whitehaven, while York have doubts over Adam Sullivan (knee) and Luke Stenchion (ankle).
Knights coach Gary Thornton has set his sights on changing the culture within his squad.
He said: “We want to get off to a good start and get rid of the losing culture.
“We’ve got to sweep that under the carpet and start afresh. We’ve been keen to make sure we don’t have any hangovers from last year.”
He added: “We’ve got some good characters on board, as well as those that were already here, and I’m pretty pleased with how the team’s coming together.”