A week after what purported to be the end of the 2001 season, the 19 clubs of the Northern Ford Premiership this weekend begin a marathon slog that will not be complete until next autumn.
The season is being stretched out so that it will end at the same time as Super League, with which it will be synchronised thereafter. That is a necessary reform, but it will put a strain on NFP clubs over the next 10 months.
The season will be broken up next spring by the introduction of a National Cup – which already has the look of one of rugby league's short-lived competitions – but the main business is the league format which runs until next September, leading into a play-off series and a possible place in Super League for the winners.
Widnes showed this year that the ladder is there for a club strong enough to get its feet on the rungs and their promotion will give heart to several clubs in this year's NFP – including the team they have replaced.
Huddersfield might have slipped down a division, but have retained much of their structure as a full-time professional club and are the logical favourites to win this time. They have inevitably lost some players, but the likes of Steve McNamara and Stanley Gene, plus a good crop of youngsters who were not quite ready for Super League last year, should make them the front-runners.
The Giants have the bye in the first round of fixtures, but their likely challengers are all in action tomorrow. Leigh were distraught when they lost out to Widnes in the play-offs after dominating the season proper and they are stronger this time for the addition of Vila Matautia, Paul Rowley and Jon Roper.
They begin their campaign at home to Barrow and will be hoping that Neil Turley, who could have picked from several Super League clubs had he wished, will be as prolific again this season.
Oldham reached the Grand Final before losing to Widnes and they have strengthened their pack with two of the opposition that day – Simon Knox and Tommy Hodgkinson. Their coach, Mike Ford, will be an occasional player at best, however, and they must adapt to new surroundings at Ashton United, starting with tomorrow's visit of Swinton.
Rochdale, who were third, will compensate for the likely loss of Danny Sculthorpe with some shrewd signings, but the biggest improvements might come from Doncaster and the West Cumbrian neighbours, Workington and Whitehaven.
Elsewhere, Gateshead, Chorley and York should not be the easy touches they were last time. Chorley have been to Leigh to recruit John Duffy and Tim Street, while York, who have formed an unlikely alliance with the New York Economic Development Council, have a new coach in Leo Epifania and the finance necessary to sustain a challenge.
NORTHERN FORD PREMIERSHIP Opening day fixtures (tomorrow, 3.0): Chorley Lynx v Featherstone; Dewsbury v Keighley; Gateshead v Doncaster; Hull Kingston Rovers v Hunslet; Leigh v Barrow; Oldham v Swinton; Rochdale v Batley; Workington v Sheffield; York v Whitehaven.Reuse content