Newcastle Thunder travel to Workington Town this Sunday as the League 1 season gets underway.
In the most internationally diverse domestic sports competition, Newcastle will be hoping for a great season under the stewardship of Mick Mantelli, who took over from Stanley Gene as Thunder boss in late 2015.
The North East club go into this weekend’s match after beating Workington last time out in the Challenge Cup third round. Before that, the Thunder beat Hunslet RLFC to progress to the quarter-finals of the League 1 Cup, capping off a solid pre-season for the team, with two friendlies also taking place against Whitehaven and a St Helens Select side.
Ten new signings have bolstered Newcastle’s squad for the upcoming season. The likes of Scottish international Corbyn Kilday and Brett Waller stand out from the crowd alongside ex-Town back-rower Liam McAvoy and Tom Shaw, who have both played for Northumbria University’s dominant rugby league team.
Despite the numerous signings that have been made, Newcastle have managed to keep hold of some key figures from last year’s campaign including try-scoring prop forward Vincent Rennie. Derrell Olpherts and Benn Hardcastle are two players who can make a big impact for Thunder this year too, playing out of centre and scrum-half. Former England international winger Peter Fox is also a big part of the squad for the season ahead, with his experience proving second to none.
Workington’s return to League 1 comes after a disastrous 2016 in the Championship. Injuries hit the team hard and key man Jarrod Sammut was unable to keep them up, although he racked up an impressive tally of 24 tries in 25 games. Now they have to begin life in the third tier, and without Sammut, who moved to London Broncos in the off-season.
Coach Dave Clark has seen a lot of players head for the exits since relegation, with 14 going out of the door to new clubs or being released as free agents. Six of those have gone to fellow Cumbrian clubs Barrow Raiders and Whitehaven. However, the players that have replaced them bring a good mix of youth and experience to the ranks.
Ed Chamberlain has joined on a season-long-loan from Super League club Widnes Vikings and he has played in the Championship on dual-registration for the past two seasons with Whitehaven. Stuart Howarth and Phil Joseph bring a lot of top tier nous to the squad and that will be much needed in a team which is rather youthful and could be classed as a work in progress.
There are still quality players in the squad from last season, despite their relegation from a very competitive Championship division. The Phillips brothers – Callum and Brett – have both been capped by Scotland and are highly rated. Their contributions will be important to the Cumbrians’ cause this year. Former Sheffield Eagles pair Jason Mossop and Alex Szostak will also be key for Workington, with their experience and proven quality.
There will be a sense of revenge on the cards as Town bid to get one over on Newcastle to start their season in style. Sunday’s match is a 3pm kick-off and will take place at the Zebra Claims Stadium.