Championship TV is set to take fans to the heartland


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The Independent Online

Television coverage of Championship rugby league will break new ground when it starts this week, with unprecedented access to what makes the game tick.

The semi-professional level of the sport, previously televised by Sky, has switched over to the Irish-based sports channel Premier. Its first match is on Thursday, between Leigh and Batley, and viewers will immediately notice a difference.

What the new broadcasters might lack in camera angles and graphics they will make up for with the places they take microphones. The main innovations are going into the dressing rooms at half-time, miking up the video referee to talk through his decisions and, subject to individual agreement, interviewing coaches midway through the second half.

Perhaps as with ITV's coverage of these divisions a few years ago in the controversial Rugby League Raw, there will be a time delay on coaches' half-time pep-talks, but the game will still be bearing its soul in a way it does not normally do.

Leigh versus Batley should be a good start. Both sides have won silverware at this level, both have new coaches and fresh ambitions.

After flirting with big-name overseas imports, Leigh have appointed their former international hooker, Paul Rowley. Batley have gone for the massive experience of John Kear, and the fact that most of that experience is in Super League does not make him regard the Championship as second best.

"I don't call it Championship rugby league," he says. "I call it pure rugby league. The attitude of players who work at day jobs and never miss a training session at night is like a breath of fresh air to me. They aren't doing it for the money. They're doing it because they love it."

Last year's Grand Final winners, Featherstone, who are impressively coached by Daryl Powell, will start as favourites again and their first match is next Sunday at Keighley.

Others to watch out for are the unpredictable Halifax, who are at home to Hunslet, and last season's beaten finalists, Sheffield, at home to promoted Swinton.

In Championship One much of the interest will centre on something rugby league has not had for over a century: two professional Welsh clubs.

South Wales Scorpions start at Gateshead, and North Wales Crusaders, salvaged from the wreckage of last year's Super League club, are at home to Barrow.

It will be the new Crusaders' first competitive match, since they have been playing friendlies while their rivals have been involved in the Northern Rail Cup. "We needed that breaking-in period, but we know that it gets a lot tougher from now on," says their coach, Clive Griffiths. "The bonus is the way the people of Wrexham have stuck with us. We've sold more season tickets than they did for Super League last season."

On Easter Monday, the two clubs clash in the first Welsh derby for 101 years. "It's historic," says Griffiths. "If you'd told me, after all the false starts we've had, that we'd be doing that, I wouldn't have believed you."