The Betfred Championship will return after a year’s absence over the Easter weekend in April with a new club in Newcastle Thunder, a new name in Halifax Panthers, and a superb new stadium in York.
Thunder, who were elevated from Betfred League 1 last December to take the Championship place vacated by Leigh’s promotion to the Super League, will kick off at Kingston Park with an attractive fixture against Widnes Vikings – meaning all manner of reunions, as the Newcastle brains trust of Denis Betts and Eamon O’Carroll both have strong links with Widnes, while the new Vikings coach Simon Finnigan left Thunder to take up that position last year.
Halifax’s first game following their rebrand as the Panthers will be a tough one against Danny Ward’s London Broncos at The Shay.
Meanwhile York City Knights, who have made a number of eyecatching signings with considerable Super League experience including Ryan Atkins, Adam Cuthbertson and Ben Jones-Bishop, will play their first competitive fixture at the 8,500-capacity LNER Community Stadium against a Toulouse Olympique team whose new recruits include the former France and Catalans Dragons captain Remi Casty.
The opening round of fixtures also includes a traditional Easter derby between Oldham and Swinton Lions, while Featherstone Rovers will host Batley Bulldogs, Whitehaven travel to Dewsbury Rams, and John Kear’s Bradford Bulls face the club he guided to famous Wembley victory in 1998, Sheffield Eagles – with that game to be played at the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster where the Eagles will be based for 2021 before a planned return to Sheffield in 2022.
The Betfred Championship season comprises 22 rounds of fixtures running until the weekend of September 19, with each of the 14 teams playing nine of the other 13 twice and the other four once. The Summer Bash will not be played in 2021 because of the expectation that crowds will have to be socially-distanced and therefore limited when fans are permitted to return.
Following a meeting of Championship and League 1 clubs with the RFL last week, it has been agreed that positions on the league table in each competition will be determined by points percentage, as in the Betfred Super League in 2020.
This is to recognise the likelihood of fixtures being affected by Covid-19, with postponements permitted if a team loses seven or more players for Covid-related reasons – either players with positive tests, or who have been ruled out through test and trace analysis of close contacts in matches or training.
The first option will be for matches to be rearranged on a free date – but if this is not possible, the fixture will be cancelled.
It has also been determined to suspend Golden Point Extra Time for drawn matches for the 2021 season, following concerns expressed at the meeting for the welfare of players who will have gone more than a year since their last fixture, and the majority of whom are part-time. The intention is to reintroduce Golden Point for the 2022 campaign.
Now that the fixtures have been released for the regular season of the Betfred Championship and the draw made for the First and Second Rounds of the Betfred Challenge Cup, the RFL will work with all clubs, broadcasters and streaming partners over the next week to confirm when over the Easter Weekend the opening round Championship games will be played and also confirm the exact day and kick-off time for all First Round games of the Challenge Cup.
Betfred Championship games that are played behind closed doors will be live streamed on the Our League app & website with home season ticket holders given free access to their club’s live stream and all other fans able watch via Pay Per View. Some Betfred Challenge Cup games will be live streamed by the BBC and Betfred with others available on Our League.
The exact day and kick-off time for the games in Round Two onwards of the Betfred Championship will be confirmed in the coming weeks when it is hoped that Government announcements will have given a clearer indication of when fans will be able to return to stadiums.
Betfred Championship Opening Round
(Easter weekend, April 2-5 – dates and kick-off times tbc): Dewsbury Rams v Whitehaven, Featherstone Rovers v Batley Bulldogs, Halifax Panthers v London Broncos, Newcastle Thunder v Widnes Vikings, Oldham v Swinton Lions, Sheffield Eagles v Bradford Bulls, York City Knights v Toulouse Olympique.