Things to look forward to in 2019 #1

A new year means a new rugby league season and, with that, there comes many things that fans of the greatest sport on earth can look forward to.

Here, Get ’em Onside gives the first five of it’s extensive list to whet the appetite of rugby league fans ahead of the big kick off at the end of this month…

Lunt’s return

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There are certain events in sport which unite all the fans and when Hull KR’s Shaun Lunt returns to the field in 2019, that will be one of those moments. After being rushed to hospital last September, Lunt was left wondering whether he would survive after being diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. Further issues with an abscess in his spinal cord and sepsis followed before the Cumbrian rake was able to return home. Thereafter, he still had regular visits from medical professionals and had to take antibiotics through an IV drip as well as more tablets than you could shake a stick at. Now, the 31-year-old former Super League winner is back with the KR squad preparing for their Super League campaign and, while it isn’t believed that Lunt will be ready for their season’s big kick off against Hull FC, he will no doubt be a beneficiary of the substantial well-wishes of the rugby league family when he returns to the pitch.

Rhinos’ resurrection and revamped ground

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2018 was a season of disappointment and change for the Rhinos. After winning the 2017 Super League Grand Final, Leeds started the season reasonably well with early victories over Warrington and St Helens away from home as well as edging at tight clash with Hull FC at Headingley. That, however, wouldn’t last and a shocking run of form saw the club sack Brian McDermott mid-season. The decision wouldn’t arrest the club’s slide towards The Qualifiers, though, and the club only just managed to survive. The arrival of legend Kevin Sinfield as the club’s Director of Rugby saw changes made and, following the culmination of the Rhinos’ season, bigger changes have occurred. Backroom staff have been shuffled, new head coach Dave Furner has arrived from the NRL and he has brought with him top quality recruits.

Trent Merrin (Penrith) and Konrad Hurrell (Gold Coast Titans) have both arrived and the pair have very recent experience of international rugby with Australia and Tonga respectively. Hurrell’s international teammate Tui Lolohea has also arrived in Super League and the club are now being touted as challengers for a top-five spot and qualification for the new play-off structure. 2019 is likely to be one of transition for Leeds as Sinfield, Furner and CEO Gary Hetherington aim to restore the club to former glories but, with the new South Stand already open and the revamped North Stand set to shortly follow, this season is one full of promise for the Rhinos.

New stadium for York

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Those of you who may have followed the fortunes of York’s two professional sports clubs will be aware of the long drawn out saga over the city’s new stadium. The best part of two decades in the planning and various suggested start and open dates passed without a spade in the ground but, alas, this summer York City Knights are set to move into a new community stadium. While the team will only play two matches there this season – Bradford Bulls and Featherstone Rovers – the optimism and excitement is palpable. The club’s return to the second tier after a lengthy absence has only served to intensify that and there is a belief that, under the stewardship of highly rated head coach James Ford and chairman Jon Flatman, the Knights are a club certainly on the up. Already boasting top quality training facilities in the city, the new stadium promises to be a huge boost for rugby league in the Minster city.

Capital presence back in SL

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For the first time since 2014, Super League rugby will be heading to the capital club after London Broncos stunned Toronto with a 4-2 victory in last season’s Million Pound Game. While many are tipping Danny Ward’s men to finish bottom and suffer an immediate return to the second tier, the Broncos upset the odds last year and will be striving to do the same this. With a young squad at their disposal – many of the players either being from London or having learned their trade in the city – the talent on show through The Qualifiers suggests that the Broncos will be able to mix it with the lesser lights in Super League. While the loss of talisman Jarrod Sammut will have been a disappointment, the arrivals of Jordan Abdull and Morgan Smith from Hull FC and Warrington respectively show that the Broncos are an attractive proposition for youngsters. The pair were highly rated at their former clubs and, in the shape of Abdull, Ward has a player with a level of Super League experience many of his squad don’t. Even if the Broncos do end up struggling and go down, the return to Super League of London can only be a good thing for the sport as a whole and there is plenty of talent in the squad who will be keen to showcase their ability at the elite level.

Trueman stepping up to the plate once more


Luke Gale’s season-ending achilles injury has probably cemented Jake Trueman’s already-strong chances of being one of Castleford’s first choice halves this season. Handed the number six jersey after being named Super League’s Young Player of the Season in 2018, the teenager will be expected to further develop and truly establish himself as the Super League star he is more than capable of being. Without Gale in the squad, much of the Tigers’ playmaking will come through the 19-year-old and his ability both to organise and play with ball in hand makes him a threatening opponent to come up against. Twenty-eight appearances last year saw the youngster score eight tries for Daryl Powell’s Tigers and, while some are suggesting that the team’s lack of recruitment against their other top Super League rivals could see them drop out of the play-off picture, Trueman’s performances will go a long way to determining Castleford’s season.

Championship and League One York City Knights

Petersen pens York deal

Forward Dave Petersen has signed a deal with York City Knights for 2019 after a successful period on trial with the club.

The 26-year-old began his career with Hull KR before spells with Workington, Oxford and Bradford Bulls to name just three prior to overseas stints with Australia’s Mackay Cutters and Boston 13s in the USA. Petersen featured for the Knights in their Boxing Day defeat at Bradford where head coach James Ford was suitably impressed with his showing. “Dave acquitted himself really well on Boxing Day in two vital positions at hooker and loose-forward,” he told the club’s official website, adding that Petersen fits the club’s philosophies, outlining him as a good recruit for the club. “He embodies a lot of what we are about in terms of effort, never giving in and working as hard as he can for his team mates.” 

The forward is set to feature again for the Knights in their second pre-season outing and their first in the revamped Yorkshire Cup competition as they face amateurs Hunslet Club Parkside this afternoon in a double-header at Dewsbury’s Tetleys Stadium.

Championship and League One York City Knights

Marsh pens Knights deal

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York City Knights have today confirmed the permanent signing of former dual-registration star Matty Marsh following his release from Super League’s Hull KR.

The 23-year-old made twelve appearances for the Betfred League One champions, crossing the line ten times during his time with the Minster city club while also making nine appearances for his parent club. Having come through the academy system at KR, he went on to make almost fifty appearances for The Robins before being one of nine released by the club following the end of the 2018 campaign.

Now, though, the half-back, who also featured heavily for York at full-back, has signed a permanent deal – believed to initially be a one-year-deal – with James Ford’s men following the Knights’ promotion and the League One Coach of the Year was understandably delighted. “I’m really pleased to able to continue working with Matty,” he explained. “He’s a talented young player who has lots of improvement in him as long as he continues to strive for development.”

Marsh himself told the media that he was happy to have joined the Bootham Crescent club. “I massively enjoyed my time at the club on DR in 2018 and loved playing with a great set of lads,” adding that, despite interest from other teams, “this is the club I wanted to sign for.”

Betfred Championship Championship and League One Interview York City Knights

EXCLUSIVE: An interview with James Ford

imgID119785606.jpg.gallerySince retiring from playing the sport in 2014, former centre James Ford has established himself as one of the most promising coaches outside of Super League while at the helm of Kingstone Press League One’s York City Knights and, after signing a new contract in 2017 following links with jobs at Featherstone and Sheffield, he feels his development as a coach can grow alongside the club itself and, looking forward to the upcoming campaign, he agreed to sit down with myself and talk the Knights and rugby in general.

After a tumultuous off season at the end of the John Guilford regime, the Minster city club were reeling from the loss of big players who saw fit to move on amid the uncertainty and, when current owner John Flatman’s takeover last winter, the Knights were playing catchup in preparing for the past season Ford saying that, regarding last year, “we had a number of players coming out of Super League under 19s and their understanding of certain things was a long way off where I thought it was going to be and where it needed to be.” Indeed, the fact that the supposed deficiencies in the squad in Ford’s opinion didn’t halt the team’s development or progress throughout the season is a testament to his and his staff’s coaching as well as the world class facilities at the club’s disposal now – facilities which weren’t available to the likes of Dave Woods or Gary Thornton during their coaching tenures at York. Ford alluded to the development of the squad throughout 2017, stating that “the improvement the players showed throughout the year really is a testament to their attitude towards learning and hard work” and that the campaign, which saw an early defeat to Kingstone Press League 1 minnows Oxford, ended with the Knights in the promotion play off semi final having also been the first team to beat the all-conquering Toronto Wolfpack is a very real indicator of the aforementioned progress.

It is a progress that Ford is proud of and one which he feels is vital that the current crop of Knights continue this season, saying “the quality of the league has certainly gone up again” and highlighting the likes of newly relegated Bradford Bulls – who, unsurprisingly, he feels will be the team to beat – and Oldham as potential contenders challenging for promotion. Adding to that, Ford identifies the likes of Doncaster and Hunslet as top of the table rivals, stating “Doncaster have recruited really well and Hunslet have signed some eye catching players. Leon Pryce at Workington will bring the x-factor to them… it makes for a really exciting season.” While the competition for promotion is definitely there, the fact that there is a more traditional look to the league makes away journeys much more straightforward for the Knights without the foreign element the competition has seen recently. In the last two years, Ford has had to take his team to both Toulouse – three times in 2016 – and Toronto with squad difficulties being prevalent, especially with the French trips. Ford, regarding the Toulouse excursions, said “going there three times in a year was tough. We only took fifteen the second time and twelve on the last occasion” which perhaps is the biggest reason Ford himself is relieved to not have those journeys to contend with; “it’s much easier to prepare to travel to Doncaster or Hunslet.” However, the aforementioned journeys, while being challenging, were definitely worthwhile with the coach himself outlining that “it’s a good experience for the players and to have teams of that calibre in the competition just shows how League One is moving forward.”

With an eye on the upcoming campaign, it is clear from speaking to Ford that he is a man happy that his team’s preparations are going well and that the 2018 season could be a strong one for the Knights. This off season, while last year’s was very difficult, has seemingly run much smoother and the recruits brought into York show the potential of the club as well as Ford’s reputation as an upcoming coach. The likes of Will Jubb, Jake Butler Fleming and Graeme Horne have all returned to the Minster city club following appearances on dual registration last season on permanent deals and, with them reportedly turning down other clubs to join York, Ford said that “they believe in the vision and the York City Knights project” and adding that new owner Jon Flatman has been “instrumental in helping attract players like Ben Cockayne, Graeme Horne and Sam Scott,” the latter of whom is returning to York after leaving for Batley in 2013. It is this quality of recruitment that is leading to other clubs viewing the Knights as a threat in 2018 and Ford suggested that the team have the potential to be really exciting this year. When asked about players he feels will get fans on their feet, Brad Delaney was a man mentioned. The recent recruit from Coventry arrived to little fanfare – not dissimilar from second rower Joe Batchelor – signed after an initial trial period and Ford said “he’s quick and a good support player and if he’s good enough to make the seventeen he will make and score tries,” highlighting his scoring record of one in every two games while at Coventry – impressive while playing for a ‘lesser’ team. “He’s looked promising so far in training,” adding that he needs to develop more of a controlling influence during matches in order to guide the Knights around the pitch. Like seemingly all players involved in York currently, Ford acknowledged his worth ethic, saying that “he’s got a good attitude and he seems willing to learn and work hard.” Ben Cockayne’s aggression and will to win was also highlighted by Ford, suggesting that he will also be a fan’s favourite – “I don’t think he could ever not be a fan’s favourite. He plays with his heart on his sleeve.” Continuing on the same point, the former Knights player added that “there’s blokes that are going to excite supporters all around the team,” name dropping the likes of Ash Robson, Judah Masive (recently recruited from Wakefield Trinity), Joe Batchelor and Brad Hey.

One of the key strengths of York’s development throughout last season was the blossoming of a strong dual registration partnership with recently promoted Hull KR – a team who, when the initial agreement was struck, had just fallen out of Super League. Indeed, the likes of Jubb, Butler Fleming and Horne have joined from the Humberside club this winter and the likes of Liam Harris featured heavily for the Knights as part of the agreement last season only to move on to Doncaster in the off season. Speaking about the strength of it, Ford said “there’s a mutual respect between the clubs above the coaching level and that clubs are frequently in contact” and that “both clubs see it as a partnership rather than us relying on Hull KR or Hull KR relying on us.” Ford’s previous playing contacts are of great benefit in this regard as well because, while playing for Widnes Vikings, he starred alongside KR coach James Webster who he has a great working relationship with, adding that “James has been really supportive to me as a young coach coming through.” Not only does Ford have great respect for Webster but also The Robins’ head coach Tim Sheens, a man whose coaching career began over thirty years ago and who has taken in coaching the Australian international team. Speaking of Sheens, Ford glowingly said that “he’s one of the most endearing men I’ve ever come across and his knowledge of rugby league is second to none.” Furthermore, he added that “for me to have access to a bloke who has coached Australia and won titles in Australia is outstanding. Over at Hull KR they’re willing to support us in any way they can, whether that’s providing us with dual registration players, helping us to recruit or helping our team improve as coaches. It’s a really healthy partnership.” 

It is clear that Ford and the Knights as a club are looking forward to the upcoming season and, just in my time sat talking rugby with him, the buzz from the players was evident as was the focus – these are players who seem ready for the challenge of going further in 2018 than they did in 2017. Not only has this off season seen developments within the club itself but the boost of work finally beginning on the much delayed new community stadium for the city in the last month is not lost on Ford. When asked where he hopes the club to be when the stadium opens – in theory in 2019 – he said that “it’d be fitting for us to be in the Championship and to have the first league game in the stadium against a massive club like Featherstone or Halifax, Leigh or even Toronto if they aren’t back in Super League. I think it would be a massive day for rugby league and for York – but there is a lot of rugby to be played before then and we’ve got to do our bit on it.”

The Knights start their 2018 Kingstone Press League One campaign at home with the plum match against the fallen Bradford Bulls – under the stewardship of the hugely experienced John Kear – in February and York fans aplenty will be hoping for another Toronto-esque build up, attendance and atmosphere which saw the team beat the Canadians after superb marketing for the match and Ford hopes that the club can go even further in preparations for Bradford, both on the pitch and off it – and it’s less than two months before we can find out!