One year, twenty-four days, and twenty-one hours after the last tackle was made on the 8th March 2020, the Betfred Championship finally got underway as the Halifax Panthers hosted the London Broncos in the opening fixture of the opening round.
Seven fixtures were scheduled for the Easter weekend with new boys the Newcastle Knights closing out the round with a Sunday evening clash with the Widnes Vikings at Kingstone Park in north Newcastle.
It was a pleasure to be back, despite the lack of crowds, and all games being streamed to season ticket holders in their living rooms.
The newly monikered Halifax Panthers welcomed the ambitious London Broncos to the MBi Shay for a 17:00 kick off on Good Friday. Tries from Morris and Harris saw the home side take the initiative and when Barber added a third try on twenty-five the Panthers were 18-0 ahead. Miski scored for London just before the interval but Barber added a second just after the restart. A second from Miski on forty-seven just goaded the home side into more scoring action. McComb, Grix and Fairbank all scored tries for a 40-8 lead before Egodo pushed London into double figures. The last points of the game came from a McGrath try, a Robinson conversion and to add insult to injury a Robinson drop goal on the final hooter for an emphatic 47-14 Halifax win.
Kicking off just fifteen minutes later, the game between Oldham and the Swinton Lions was a much closer affair. In a see-saw game Oldham took the lead through Roberts but Butt pulled a four-pointer back for Swinton. Ince made it 10-4 to Oldham but a converted Waterman try levelled things up on twenty. Swinton then kicked on and completed the half with a 20-10 lead thanks to tries from Lloyd and Hansen. The second half was one-way scoring traffic with a couple from Heaton and one from Dupree being enough for Oldham to get the season off to the perfect start with a 28-20 win.
The last Friday game was en evening kick-off between Featherstone Rovers and near neighbours the Batley Bulldogs. Kopczak and Welham started the game well for Fev’ and opened up a 10-0 lead before Hall pulled one back for the visitors, but Halton and Brown added to the Rovers tally for an 18-6 half-time advantage. Gale put his side further ahead just after the interval before Walshaw (Batley) and Moors (Featherstone) traded tries. The game was over as a competitive encounter, Logan scoring a late consolation for the visitors as the Bulldogs went down by 18-28.
The late afternoon game on Saturday saw a mouth-watering contest between two hopefuls for end of season promotion as York City Knights prepared for the Challenge Cup tie against Wigan next weekend with a home game against Toulouse Olympique XIII. York got off to a great start with a Jones-Bishop try converted by Dixon but that’s when it all went wrong. Peyroux scored at the end of the first quarter and two penalties just before the interval gave Toulouse an 8-6 lead. Second half tries from Garbutt and Bretherton sealed the Toulouse win and a Marion penalty and White drop goal on the final hooter made the score line 21-6 to the French side.
Saturday evening saw Dewsbury triumph by 17-8 over Whitehaven, but it was the visitors who’d taken the lead on thirteen through Walmsley. A Day try, converted by Sykes, put the Rams 6-4 up at half time in a close contest. Two tries in four minutes from Fleming won the game for Dewsbury, a Finn drop goal on seventy-four making sure before Mossop rounded off proceedings with a second Whitehaven try as they lost by 8-17.
Sunday was the day for the tow remaining games, the first featuring the Sheffield Eagles against the Bradford Bulls, the Eagles having a fantastic afternoon of it. Brown (2), Guzdek, Farrell and Glover (2) stunned the Bulls as the Eagles took a commanding 28-0 lead at the break. There were signs of a Bulls fightback in the second half with Rooks and Brown scoring, but not before Farrell had further extended the Eagles lead. Sheffield would have been forgiven for shutting up shop at 34-12 but they kicked on and racked up a 50-12 win thanks to unanswered four-pointers from Thackeray (2) and Millar. A good day at the office for the Eagles who end the weekend on the top of the pile, and one to forget for the Bulls who are propping up the first table of the season.
Closing out the round was the game between the Widnes Vikings and the newly promoted Newcastle Thunder held late afternoon on Sunday. It couldn’t have been a better start for Newcastle who registered their opening try on two minutes when Gill, but it was a lead which only lasted until the tenth minutes when Cross went in for Widnes who took a 6-4 lead. Cook added a second for the Chemics before Wilde scored for Newcastle to make it 10-12. A second try from Cross was quickly followed by the third Newcastle try from Ta’ai but just as it looked like the sides would go into the break at 18-16 to Widnes but two tries in the closing two minutes of the half from Grady and Owens seemed to change the complexion of the game and put the Vikings 30-16 ahead. The second half was a war of attrition and it took until the seventy second minute before Bailey started a tremendous fightback as he went in for Newcastle, and the conversion was added to reduce the arrears to just eight. Johnson scored a fifth try for Newcastle with four minutes left on the clock but the conversion was missed but with the hooter warming up Gill went in for his second of the game to tie up the scores. Wright was unable to add the conversion with a minute left to play and the sides finished tied up at 30-30 (no golden point in the Championship in 2021).