Adrian Lam is determined to prove Leigh’s stunning 2023 season was no fluke.

Fuelled by an off-field rebranding campaign, the promoted Leopards not only charged up the Super League table on their top-flight return but dramatically won the Challenge Cup for the first time in 52 years.

After spending most of the summer era toiling in the lower tiers – with just three fleeting single-season campaigns in Super League amid numerous financial crises – it marked an extraordinary turnaround.

The challenge now for their dynamic former Wigan coach Lam is to prove it was no flash in the pan, as he fears many people suspect.

“I think people underestimated us last year,” said Lam, who was named coach of the year after following up cup success with a fifth-placed finish.

“I think people probably still doubt that we can do it and potentially feel that we may have got lucky, so we’ve still got a few people to prove wrong.

“We’re aware that it’s going to be that little bit harder because everyone’s aware of us.

“But we’ve added 10 new players to the group and hopefully they can bring something to us, while we’ve not lost many. We’ve just got to believe really, and have that consistency.”

Lam is pleased with how his squad has been rejigged over the winter. While a host of new faces have arrived, a core of key players including Dream Team entrants John Asiata, Robbie Mulhern, Josh Charnley, Edwin Ipape and the coach’s son Lachlan Lam have all been retained.

Among the new signings is former Penrith and Cronulla playmaker Matt Moylan, a one-cap Australia international, who looks set to play alongside Lam junior in the halves.

Lam senior said: “I think the new players that have come in are definitely better players, to add to the squad and to make us better.

“That’s all really exciting. We’ve just got to make sure that we gel off the field. By doing that we get the trust on the field.

“I think that the goal will be to finish higher than we did last year, so that would be in the top four.

“I think that’s a realistic goal but it’s going to take a lot of hard work. We’re aware of that but we’re a club that’s on the up and we want to show that’s what we’re capable of.”

The Leopards, who beat Warrington 28-12 in a pre-season friendly last weekend, begin their Super League campaign when they host Huddersfield on February 16.

Resilience and evolution will underpin Leeds’ bid to reassert their once-customary status as Betfred Super League title contenders when the 2024 season kicks off in a fortnight’s time.

Rohan Smith’s fairytale start to the head-coach role at Headingley, when he lifted them from 11th place to fifth and ultimately a place in the 2022 Grand Final, proved a distant memory during a turbulent 2023 campaign.

But a productive pre-season, which saw the headline arrival of Salford’s former Man of Steel Brodie Croft among six others, has helped convince Smith that the tough times could soon be a thing of the past.

“What we went through last season has made a lot of players and staff resilient,” Smith, whose side’s play-off hopes were ended by injuries and the unscripted departures of key players like Blake Austin and Sam Walters, told the PA news agency.

“There were some tough times in among some really performances, but the resilience of having to fight through the tough bits is something you can only get by going through them.

“It’s been a really productive pre-season. The Croft and (Andy) Ackers situations don’t pop up very often, so it was a chance for us to make a statement. I think we will start as a work in progress and get better.”

Just as he shut out criticism during the more difficult moments of the 2023 season, not least the crushing September defeats by Wigan and Catalans Dragons, Smith is also intent on blocking out the increasing external expectations.

“When we went to the Grand Final I wasn’t reading the paper, and I wasn’t reading the paper when we didn’t make the play-offs,” added Smith.

“I live in my own little bubble and I have to get informed on most things that happen in the real world. I keep my focus on the things I can have an influence on.

“This time last year things were looking OK and that’s probably how we played. This year the characters who have come in have been picked on their personality as well as their playing ability, and there is a real cohesion and consistency in the group.”

Australian full-back Lachie Miller is another high-profile arrival but for Smith the club’s academy remains front and centre to a prospective revival, so the emergence of the likes of homegrown prop Tom Holroyd – who will wear the famous number 10 shirt this season – is of equal importance.

“Tom had a terrific season last year and he’s a player who’s got a lot ahead of him, but he’s also a sign for the rest of the group that there’s an opportunity out there for them.

“It’s up to them to decide what happens with recruitment and retention going forward. The opportunity is there for the young players to emerge and take that jersey.

“That’s the plan moving forward, that we evolve and emerge from within, rather than looking outside for anything more than the necessary components.”

Newcastle Thunder chairman Keith Christie has issued an ultimatum to the north-east’s rugby league community ahead of his team’s return to action in Betfred League One next season.

Christie has been integral to the resurrection of the club who announced their resignation from senior competition following relegation from the Championship in October, when departing owner Semore Kurdi said it was “not feasible” to continue.

A group of volunteers led by Christie responded by stepping in to chisel a viable business plan which resulted in an application to effectively rejoin the domestic league’s third tier being accepted two days before Christmas.

The heady days of full-time professionalism and aspirations of Super League have been shelved for the time being, as Christie works to grow the club from the bottom up, a project for which he stresses the backing of local fans and businesses is critical.

“The club has gone through a couple of guises with serious investment, and it hasn’t worked,” Christie told the PA news agency.

“My question was, do we have the desire for a rugby league team in the north-east? And the overwhelming response was, we do. To which my answer is – prove it.

“I’ve been through the mill a couple of times with this club and it’s not something I do lightly. It takes a lot of time and effort. We have a financial commitment and a ground, but it is fundamentally balanced on the investment and support we get from the people in the north-east.”

Christie has been involved with the club in an official capacity since he was first appointed general manager in 2009, and has observed their fluctuating fortunes, including a decision to go full-time in 2022, which was reversed the following year, plunging them to the foot of the Championship.

With the club having been left debt-free following talks with outgoing owner Kurdi, and striking a deal to continue playing at Kingston Park, at least in the short-term, Christie sees plenty of cause for optimism.

Newcastle-born former Super League player Chris Thorman has committed to another season as head coach, while there was also an unexpected boost in the first list of ratings issued by sports media giant IMG, which will determine the make-up of the top-flight from the 2025 season onwards, which rated Thunder – ironically dormant at the time – in 18th position.

“The IMG ranking is a bit of a bonus but it wasn’t a driving factor,” added Christie. “We have been through a lot of areas where mistakes were made, and one thing we learned is that we can’t expect to go out and buy a winning team.

“We’ve got a huge opportunity to grow the game organically and develop our own players. To do that we have to be sustainable, but we also have to have investment, and that’s the message I’ll be sending throughout the year.

“As romantic as it sounds, I’ve been part of rugby league in the north-east since 1989, and I don’t want to lose this.”

A community rugby league team established just a year ago primarily as a means to raise funds and awareness for mental health charities are preparing to make their debut in the Betfred Challenge Cup on Saturday.

South Wales Jets qualified by virtue of having soared unbeaten through their first season in the Welsh Premiership, and will take on seasoned Challenge Cup campaigners Stanningley in Ebbw Vale.

And while they harbour ambitions of bringing higher-level rugby league back to the region, the club’s founder Liam Price is determined that the mental health message will stay at the front and centre at the Jets.

Price, a former local rugby union player, told the PA news agency: “The idea to form a club came during furlough when I discovered how much I missed the social aspect of being involved in a rugby team.

“Before Covid I was something of a workaholic, and going from 80-hour weeks to nothing really affected me. I was one of those people who never really saw mental health as an issue, and all of sudden I found that I physically couldn’t get out of bed.

“After speaking to some of my friends who were going through a similar experience, the idea came up to start what would essentially be a charity sports team that would play a few union sevens tournaments raise some money and awareness.

“It got to the point where we decided to step up it and switch to league in order to enter the Welsh Premiership. But the mental health message will always remain central.”

Since their inauguration, the Jets have raised over £12,000 for a number of charities, chiefly the community-based Signposted Cymru, which has pride of place on the club shirts, and helped refer 17 young men for mental health counselling.

After a stellar first season, on-pitch ambitions involve a potential move to the Southern Conference League, but Price is wary of the fate that has befallen previous attempts to kick-start the sport in the region, most recently West Wales Raiders, who resigned from League One at the end of the 2022 campaign.

Four ex-Raiders are currently part of the Jets set-up, while former Super League players and Welsh internationals Ben Flower and Lloyd White have been working with the club to help prepare them for the daunting challenge of facing Stanningley.

Ebbw Vale itself is no stranger to league, having boasted a professional side that competed regularly in the Northern Union, and were the last Welsh club to be dissolved in 1912. But for Price there is still some way for the undoubted talent in the region to be realised.

“There’s a lot of talent in South Wales but the code is just severely under-funded,” said Price. “We looked at moving into the SCL but because of the distance between the teams it’s not financially viable at the current time.

“We’ve got a longer-term plan but we don’t want to make the same kind of mistakes that teams like the Raiders have done. We know we’re probably too strong for the Welsh league but it is important for the club that we do things properly.”

In a thrilling men's senior international rugby league clash at the Mona Bowl, University of West Indies in Kingston, the USA Rugby League team managed to hold on for a hard-fought victory against Jamaica's Reggae Warriors, securing a 30-26 win.

Despite challenging conditions with the temperature soaring to 85 degrees, the Reggae Warriors took an early lead of 10-0, showcasing resilience despite having less possession. However, the USA Hawks responded strongly, turning the tide to lead 14-10 by halftime. Kyle Granby, the Brooklyn Kings centre, played a pivotal role, scoring two of his three tries in the lead-up to halftime.

Granby's exceptional performance continued after the restart as he completed a genuine five-minute hat trick. Veteran loose forward Joe Eichhner crossed the try line on the hour mark, contributing to the Hawks' lead. Granby, who also kicked two goals, showcased his versatility and skill throughout the match.

USA's skipper, Peter Lupton, reflected on the challenging contest, stating, "It was back and forth, and we had to deal with some big players. It was tough from start to finish." He acknowledged the efforts of both teams, emphasizing the significance of the game for the growth of rugby league.

Despite two late tries from Jamaica's Tahj-Jay Lynch and Kenneth Walker, the Reggae Warriors fell just short of a comeback, concluding the match with a 30-26 scoreline. The USA team, having only one training session before the game, demonstrated resilience and adaptability.

Jamaica faced setbacks with injuries, losing Andrew Simpson in the first half and Kevin Thomas in the second, limiting their bench options. Head coach Roy Calvert expressed gratitude to the USA Hawks for their visit, acknowledging the support from the local fans. Calvert said, "It was a fantastic occasion despite the narrow loss. We're 1-1 now for games between the nations played here in Jamaica and are looking forward to the next one."

 Jamaica host USA in a men’s senior international tomorrow (Saturday) at the University of West Indies’ Mona Bowl in Kingston (kick off at 3pm, local time).

The match, for world ranking points, will be the Reggae Warriors’ first since their appearance in the World Cup a year ago - and only third international at home in 18 years – and will be the ninth encounter between the nations.

The Hawks lead 6-2, although Jamaica have won the last two encounters. The hosts are set to hand debuts to Daniel Graham, Tahjay Lynch, Hakeem Richards, Kahil Green, Oshane Edie and Kamarine Williams but are without Khamisi McKain who played in the World Cup but is recovering from a broken leg.

Jamaica men’s Lead coach, Roy Calvert, commented: “We are looking forward to this game as the Hawks have always been good competition for us. It’s important for nations in the Americas to provide opportunities for our domestic players to test themselves at a high level.

“Both countries are looking to debut several newcomers and that makes the game even more interesting. Jamaica’s squad has some exciting young players as strategically we are looking to build on the next generation to propel us over the next 10 years. The great thing is they get to play with legends like Thompson and Bailey who have been around for that long.”

The USA men’s team have had a four-year absence from the international scene, with their last encounter being a 38-16 loss to Cook Islands in the RLWC2021 repechage game, and the Hawks will field a new-look side selected from seven clubs.

“I’m really happy to have the men’s Hawks playing again,” noted USA head coach Sean Rutgerson. “It has been too long between games. We are looking forward to being in Jamaica with eight new guys aiming to gain their first cap.”


Akeem Murray, Andrew Simpson, Chevaughn Bailey, Daniel Graham, Jade Harrison, Kenneth Walker, Kevin Thomas, Kile Nembhard, Marvin Thompson, Owen Linton, Ryan Grant (Duhaney Park Red Sharks), Adrian Hall, (Liguanea Dragons), Tahjay Lynch, (St Catherine OB Thundercats), Hakeem Richards, Kahil Green, Oshane Edie, Reinhardo Richards (Washington Blvd Bulls), Kamarine Williams, Omar Jones (West Kingston Hyenas)


Sean Hunt (Atlanta Rhinos) Tevita Bryce, Kyle Granby (Brooklyn Kings) Urban Iyo, Peter Lupton (Boston 13s) Ethan Ferrick (DC Cavalry) Ryan Bannerot, Jason Martin, Mason McCrory, David Washington, Malcom Webb, James Williams (Jacksonville Axemen) Wes Piggins (Southwest Florida Copperheads) Joe Eichner, Matt Finnesy, Gunnar Johnson, Bart Longchamp (Tampa Mayhem)  



In an engaging finale at Campion College, the Rugby League Jamaica/Flash Ship Couriers National U19 Championship concluded on Tuesday, with defending champions Cedar Grove Academy securing their second consecutive hold on the coveted title. Displaying a dominant performance, the champs successfully fended off the challenge from BB Coke High, securing a resounding 26-6 victory.

Cedar Grove's victory was anchored by standout performances from Melvin Harris and Kaden Hunter, each contributing with two tries, while Hunter also showcased his kicking prowess by adding a goal. Additional try-scorers for the champs included Jahsemia Tulloch and Tajay Brown. BB Coke's lone try came from Tyrone Davidson, and Domique Myers added a goal.

Expressing his joy over the victory, winning coach Antonio Baker remarked, “We are elated that we won. Our victory is a culmination of years of hard work and a continuation of our dominance at the U19 level, seeing that we also won the championships last year. I am very proud of the progress the boys are making and hope that they will transition to playing the sport at the adult level.”

In the battle for the third-place position, host Campion College faced a closely contested match against Calabar High, ultimately losing 2-1 on drop-goals after both teams were deadlocked in a 12-12 tie following full and extra time.

Calabar's try-scorers, Tevez Tulloch and Tyreke Hutchinson, made crucial contributions, with goals coming from Dean Griffiths and Timor Osbourne. For Campion, Deshawn Gordon and Jaleel Green scored tries, while Josiah Neil kicked two goals. In the kick-off, only Maliq Morris made a successful kick.


Kevin Sinfield has stressed there is no time to waste as he prepares to embark on his latest “crackers” fundraising quest in aid of research into Motor Neurone Disease next week.

The former Leeds Rhinos star, who will set off another series of seven back-to-back ultra-marathons from Headingley Stadium on December 1, remains frustrated by a perceived lack of urgency on behalf of the Government to fulfill a pledge to commit £50million to fighting the disease.

The 43-year-old Sinfield and his team have raised over £8m from a number of endurance events which started with their first ‘7 in 7 challenge’ in 2020.

Sinfield said: “It’s really important that the money is released as promised and used in the best possible way so that we can find a cure.

“People with Motor Neurone Disease don’t have time to wait. We all want things done now, we all want change now, we all want our great scientists across the UK to work together to find a cure, so there is some frustration.

“We know the statistics from diagnosis are that 50 per cent die within the first two years. People with MND don’t have time on their hands, so we’ve got to shift this quickly. As we saw with Covid, if you throw money at something you can get a cure.”

“(Rob) thinks I’m crackers but he fully gets it. He’s with us 100% in spirit, and he’ll be there at the start and the finish. He’s such an inspirational friend and I’m delighted to be doing it again.”

Sinfield admits he will embarking on his latest quest a little “under-cooked” due to the tight turn-around following his return from France where he was working as a defensive coach for England’s rugby union World Cup squad.

Having insisted prior to a similar epic challenge last year that his running days would soon be a thing of the past, he revealed his ex-team-mate, good friend and inspiration, MND sufferer Rob Burrow, described him as “crackers” for resolving to put himself through it once again.

But Sinfield, whose route this year will include trips to Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff and Edinburgh, as well as Dublin for the first time, said he never considered hanging up his running shoes while a cure remains out of reach.

“There are 100,000 reasons why we shouldn’t go again but there is one big reason why we should and that is to continue representing this beautiful community,” added Sinfield.

“The messages, the emails, the face to face meetings – on average three times a day someone will stop me and tell me someone they know has got MND or has passed, and they want us to keep going.

“The awareness is crucial and will make such a difference to finding a cure for this disease. It’s shown me why I’m here on this earth, and that’s to try and help. I don’t think there’s a greater gift.

“(Rob) thinks I’m crackers but he fully gets it. He’s with us 100 per cent in spirit, and he’ll be there at the start and the finish. He’s such an inspirational friend and I’m delighted to be doing it again.”

Following his first quest of seven marathons in seven days in 2020, Sinfield ran 101 miles in under 24 hours from Welford Road in Leicester to Headingley in 2021. Last year’s challenge ended on the pitch at half-time during the men’s World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand at Old Trafford.

The Government has been approached for comment about Sinfield’s concerns.

England boss Shaun Wane admitted he wanted to clinch a series whitewash over Tonga “so badly” following their 26-4 victory at the AMT Headingley.

The hosts were keen to secure a clean sweep from the start of the tie and crossed the whitewash twice in the first 26 minutes thanks to Ben Currie and Matty Ashton.

Both teams finished the half with a temporary man less after Matty Lees and Keon Koloamatangi were sent to the sin bin for a scuffle which caused a mass brawl.

England took no prisoners in the second half and cruised into an unassailable lead as Elliott Whitehead marked his final cap with a try before Harry Newman crossed for his first international score, but England’s defence was finally breached when Eliesa Katoa grabbed a consolation for the visitors.

Wane was proud of his players throughout the series and thinks they deserve full credit for a 3-0 success.

He said: “Unbelievable approach what we’ve done and how we’ve done it.

“I’ve nothing but praise for the players, the main mention is to them. I so badly wanted to win this game, no matter what. Two-nil didn’t matter to me, so to win in this fashion is great. I was desperate.

“You look at how the players have behaved and I think they’ve been outstanding and they’ll go from strength to strength.

“We stuck to our task well and they can play, athletic, big, they tested us, but the desire to defend and the detail was absolutely outstanding.

“We’ve got a really good team spirit, it’s very much like a club team. We spend time with each other and there is no club cliques and that’s been the most satisfying thing for me. We look like a club team and that’s why we’ve got the success today.”

Wane still has nightmares about England’s World Cup semi-final defeat last year but insists his side will now get stronger and did not think they would limit Tonga to just five tries in three games.

He added: “It will always haunt me, it doesn’t make it better, but how we played that game will always be there.

“I never thought we could manage that (five tries in three games). You look at their talent, that was a tough ask and you look at the physical side, big athletes, so to do that, the credit the players deserve is untrue.

“I’d love to do another three weeks. I’m back to walking my dogs next week and I’d love to do another three weeks. We’ve had a great time.

“When you score tries like that, it beggars belief when you hear stupid comments about us not being entertaining.”

Tonga boss Kristian Woolf handed full credit to England following the defeat but was proud of his team.

He said: “England were exceptionally good. Sometimes you have to sit back and applaud the tries they came up with, good tries and some good plays, they did a good job of scrambling.

“We didn’t deserve the scoreline if you look at the effort, I was proud.

“We showed up with a great attitude and I thought we showed that throughout the game and when the score looked like it could have blown out we hung in, we kept defending and trying to find points.

“We were disappointed to go down 3-0, there’s no doubt about that, and we’re certainly disappointed in the scoreline, but I’m not disappointed with the way our group have come over here. They have put their footy first and I’m very proud of them as a group of players.”

The prospect of Super League rugby returning to Wales has been made more distant under IMG’s new grading system, according to the chief executive of the only remaining senior club in the country.

North Wales Crusaders ranked rock-bottom of the 35-strong list of senior clubs which will be used to determine the make-up of the top-flight from the 2025 season onwards, scoring just 5.07 points from a possible 25.

In common with a number of others, Andy Moulsdale believes the ranking is not a “fair reflection” of the progress made by his club, who only missed out on promotion to the Championship last season when they lost the League One play-off final to Doncaster.

It also paints a bleak picture for prospective expansion, with Wales’ only other senior club, West Wales Raiders, withdrawing from the league after the 2022 season, and no Welsh club having featured in the top two divisions of the domestic game for almost a decade.

Moulsdale told the PA news agency: “We all know what we’ve got to work towards and I’m the first to admit there are certainly some pillars we need to improve on, but some of it doesn’t add up.

“For what we’ve given back to the sport, I don’t think it’s a fair reflection. We reached the final last season and finished third in the two years previously. We’ve also set up a foundation that runs a women’s and three wheelchair teams.

“These gradings make it increasingly harder for League One teams to reach Super League. We’re the only professional club in Wales and our short-term goal is to keep a Welsh team going, and start to make progress rather than just existing.”

Super League arrived in Wales in 2009 when Celtic Crusaders, effectively the existing club’s previous incarnation, were granted a top-flight licence and lasted three seasons – the latter two as simply Crusaders – before falling into financial problems and failing to re-apply for a licence in 2012.

North Wales have since made quiet progress at the third-tier level, but the stark reality of elevating teams from expansion areas has been made plain by the rankings, which were ostensibly set up, at least in part, to encourage just that.

London Broncos languish in 24th place and face the prospect of a single top-flight campaign irrespective of their on-pitch performances next season, while Midlands Hurricanes and Cornwall occupy the two places immediately above North Wales.

“There’s no doubt it makes things more difficult for us,” added Moulsdale. “The scoring is inevitably weighted towards Super League clubs, because finances and fandom are obviously going to be bigger if you’re in the top division.

“We’ve lost the likes of West Wales and London Skolars in recent seasons, and unless you have someone who can come straight in and invest a lot of money, the prospects (for expansion teams) are extremely tough.”

Moulsdale is one of a number of chiefs who believe their clubs were incorrectly graded, and that their true score could have helped them at least avoid the negative connotations of being in bottom place.

But he conceded: “The IMG gradings make you take a step back and realise it’s not all about what happens on the pitch any more. Whether you agree with it or not, that’s the way it is, and we just have to try to improve in any way we can.”

Warrington duo Matty Ashton and Ben Currie have been added to the England squad for their second clash with Tonga in Huddersfield on Saturday as head coach Shaun Wane warns his players to guard against the possibility of a backlash.

Ashton and Currie replace Tommy Makinson and Morgan Knowles, both of whom sustained injuries in England’s gruelling 22-18 win in St Helens on Sunday in the first of a three-match series against the Southern Hemisphere side.

Wane said: “Last week was a real battle of attrition and we fought hard to come out on top, but we still have work to do to win this three-game series.

“We know that Tonga will be hurt, they’ll come out even stronger, and will be seeking revenge this weekend. It is up to us to ensure that doesn’t happen and we come away with the victory – and the series.”

Ashton’s call-up to the 19-man matchday squad will represent only his second international appearance after the 25-year-old winger previously featured in England’s 64-0 thrashing of France in April.

The 29-year-old Currie featured in England’s run to the final of the 2017 World Cup but has played for his country just twice in the last six years, also including the win over France.

Wane added: “Matty Ashton impressed me earlier in the year during the mid-season international against France and has continued on the same path over the last few weeks. I’m really pleased to be able to give him an opportunity against Tonga.”

Huddersfield prop Chris Hill will make his 35th full international appearance on Saturday, while the team will once again be captained by St Helens full-back Jack Welsby as George Williams serves the last of his two-match suspension.

London Broncos appear to have been doomed to spending a single season back in the Betfred Super League under rugby league’s new grading criteria which will determine the composition of the top flight from 2025 onwards.

The Broncos, who stunned Toulouse to clinch promotion via the Championship Grand Final earlier month, have been ranked a lowly 24th in the indicative grades which were released by RL Commercial and their strategic partner, the sports media giant IMG, on Wednesday.

Under the new criteria, promotion and relegation will be axed next year and replaced by a system which awards points across five key factors including support base, performance, finances, facilities and community integration – with the top 12 scorers automatically assuming a Super League place.

Seven clubs – Leeds, Wigan, St Helens, Catalans Dragons, Warrington, Hull KR and Hull FC – have been awarded Grade A status, which effectively makes them immune to relegation, with the remaining places allocated to the best-scoring Grade B clubs.

London scored just 8.07 out of a possible 25 under the new metric, leaving them, for example, six places below Newcastle Thunder, who resigned from the league and declared themselves unsustainable in the wake of relegation from the Championship last month.

IMG vice-president Matt Dwyer, who is heading the project, denied it was impossible for London to stay up but conceded: “Across all categories London need to be improving, (and) there’s plenty of room for them to improve.

“I would suggest that in 2024 they will be wanting to perform as well as they can to move along that path to being a category A club, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”

The Broncos were not immediately available to comment on the damning verdict, but it represented another blow for the sport in the capital, long championed as a “key area for growth” by rugby league chiefs, following the loss of London Skolars at the end of last season.

But Dwyer insisted the sport has a big future in London, adding: “Interest and participation is still quite high in London, so it still has the base that should make it a core market going forward.

“All that has been identified is the challenge we have to grow the market based off that score for London. It’s a hard market to crack and it’s a market we’ve tried to crack for a long time. It has the right ingredients, but we have to put those ingredients together and bake the cake.”

Based on the current rankings, which have been released in order to give clubs just under a year to address issues and potentially move up the table which will be released at the end of next season, Toulouse and Wakefield would be promoted back into Super League at the expense of London and 13th-placed Castleford.

Castleford have indicated they intend to appeal their indicative grade based on confusion over a point relating to finance, which if accepted would move them into the top 12 at the expense of Challenge Cup winners Leigh Leopards.

Championship winners Featherstone, who lost to the Broncos in their play-off semi-final, also expressed concern over the grading criteria which appear to diminish their own long-held hopes of reaching the top flight.

Featherstone rank 15th on the current list with a score of 10.65, meaning only a prospective expansion of Super League to 14 teams would give them a realistic chance of promotion.

In a wide-ranging statement, Featherstone questioned the weighting of some of the criteria towards what it called “future promises of potential” and said it was deflecting from deeper issues within the game.

“The leaders of the game, including key partners such as IMG, should urgently refocus its attentions on the marketing of the game rather than waste any more time on looking at structures and scoring systems,” said the statement.

“The excitement and jeopardy of our game is driven by what happens on the pitch, as has been admirably shown by London Broncos in their run to Super League.

“We have been promised that this would be at the forefront of the strategy under IMG – we remain unconvinced.”

Seven Betfred Super League clubs have been awarded Grade A status in the indicative phase of the new club grading process which effectively makes them immune from relegation from the start of the 2025 season.

The grades have been introduced as part of a strategy between Rugby League Commercial and sports media giants IMG to “reimagine” the sport and award points for five key factors including support base, performance, finances, facilities and community integration.

The indicative stage of the process gives clubs the chance to make improvements prior to the start of the 2025 season, at which point the identity of the 12 Super League clubs will be determined by the rankings, rather than solely next season’s on-field success.

The seven clubs given Grade A licences – which come with the assurance they cannot be relegated – are Leeds, who lead the way with a score of 17.49 out of the maximum available 20, Wigan, St Helens, Catalans Dragons, Warrington, Hull KR and Hull FC.

Based on the current rankings, Toulouse and Wakefield, who stand 10th and 11th respectively, would be promoted back into Super League at the expense of 13th-placed Castleford and newly-promoted London Broncos.

Castleford have indicated they intend to appeal their indicative grade based on confusion over a point relating to finance, which if accepted would move them into the top 12 at the expense of Challenge Cup winners Leigh Leopards.

The rankings are also a huge blow to London Broncos, who were promoted back to the top flight this month but rank a lowly 24th, meaning they are almost certain to be demoted at the end of next season, irrespective of their on-pitch performance.

RFL chief executive Tony Sutton said: “Rugby League embarked on a bold journey with the launch of the strategic partnership with IMG in May 2022, and 18 months into that journey, the publication of these indicative club gradings is a highly significant step.”

Tom Johnstone’s second-half double sealed a rugged 22-18 win for England in the first of their three-match autumn Test series against Tonga in St Helens.

The Catalans Dragons winger had been almost anonymous in the first half but pounced on a pair of chances – the first a sublime floated pass from captain Jack Welsby – as the hosts pulled clear in the second period.

An impressive debut from Hull KR stand-off Mikey Lewis, who made then scored one before the break, also contributed to an encouraging afternoon for Shaun Wane’s men who were still forced to live on their nerves in the final stages.

A late try from Tolutau Koula threatened to set up a grandstand finish but England held on for the win in what was their first serious test since last year’s heartbreaking World Cup semi-final exit.

Tonga, boasting a side bristling with NRL talent, had themselves been looking to recover from a disappointing World Cup and deservedly reached the half-time hooter all-square at 12-12.

But it was the hosts who had made the first move and it took Lewis just eight minutes of his international bow to make an impact as his superb break set up a move that swung left through Victor Radley for Toby King to trot over on the left.

Harry Smith kicked England six clear but Tonga fought back after capitalising on a penalty for a ball steal, Saints’ Will Hopoate providing the decisive pass in a move that sent Wests Tigers’ Starford To’a in on the right edge.

Tonga went in front in the 25th minute when the second of their England-based starters, Huddersfield’s Tui Lolohea, delivered a neat kick for Tyson Frizell, who started his international career with Wales over a decade ago, to dart onto.

Isaiya Katoa’s first successful conversion lifted Tonga, backed by a boisterous band of fans behind the posts, into a four-point lead, before superb solo effort from Lewis, who wriggled through an imposing Tongan rearguard, levelled once again.

Harry Smith curled over the conversion to nudge England in front and Katoa responded with a penalty in front of the posts just before the half-time hooter.

Tonga were clearly growing in confidence, evidenced by the lively Keaon Koloamatangi, who produced an audacious offload to find space for Will Penisini, then bulled inches from the England where he was stopped by a timely Harry Smith tackle.

As the action warmed up, Johnstone’s hopes of a breakthrough were brutally stopped by Hopoate, then the action swung to the other end where To’a was ushered out of play as the visitors threatened again.

Welsby’s brilliance thrust England back in front after 55 minutes when he floated a perfectly-judged pass above the heads of three Tongan players to gift Johnstone the simplest of chances to get off the mark.

And a swift second from the Catalans man, when he pounced to intercept after a fumble by Penisini on the Tongan 40, left the fleet-footed Catalans star to race in under the posts from where’s Smith’s simplest conversion extended England’s lead to 22-12.

Tom Burgess was adjudged to have been held up over the line as England looked to finish the contest off but Tonga set up an anxious last two minutes when Tolutau Koula went over on the left, as if to serve as a timely reminder of two further bruising challenges to come.

After delivering a stinging response to his critics by leading Wigan to Grand Final glory last week, Harry Smith is relishing the prospect of winning his second England cap in the first match of a three-test series against Tonga on Sunday.

The 23-year-old Wigan stand-off played an increasingly pivotal role in his club’s surge to the Super League title, culminating in kicking six points in their 10-2 win over Catalans at Old Trafford last weekend in the Betfred Grand Final.

It marked a glittering end to the season for Smith, who missed out on the prestigious Harry Sunderland man-of-the-match trophy by a single vote, and was all the more impressive given early season concerns over his inconsistency with the boot.

Ahead of the clash at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium, Smith told the PA news agency: “I’m very happy with how the season went in terms of leadership and game management, and winning the confidence of my team-mates and (Wigan head coach) Matt Peet.

“I got a bit of stick due to my kicking, and some of it was probably a bit unfair. I thought my overall performance, creating stuff for the team, was really good.

“I never really over-thought it. I knew the work I was putting in would pay off, and I just had to keep looking forward and not backwards. I feel like I’ve really managed to make those improvements in the last few months.”

Smith made his only previous England appearance in a one-sided 64-0 thrashing of France earlier this year and knows his side face a different proposition against a Tonga squad stacked with talent from Australia’s NRL.

In the absence through suspension of regular captain George Williams, Smith is set to form a new half-back partnership with Hull KR’s Mikey Lewis, one of two potential debutants in coach Shaun Wane’s 19-man matchday squad alongside Leeds’ Harry Newman.

For more experienced members of the squad, the series represents the chance to finally shrug off any lingering disappointment from last year’s dramatic golden point World Cup semi-final defeat to Samoa at the Emirates Stadium.

Smith added: “The Samoa game has not been mentioned much, because there’s obviously quite a lot of players in the squad who were not involved, but there are definitely some who still have that bitter feeling.

“It’s more about how we can move on with the aim of getting to a World Cup final in the future. It’s why we take up the sport, to play in the biggest games, and the difference between this and the France game is obvious.

“You can feel it in training, the intensity is much bigger than before the France game, because not only are you surrounded with really good players, but you know how good those are who you are coming up against.”

St Helens full-back Jack Welsby has been handed the honour of becoming England’s youngest ever captain on his home ground and will come face-to-face with domestic team-mate Will Hopoate in the opposite position.

Saints team-mate Tommy Makinson is another survivor from the Samoa nightmare and he believes Welsby’s ascent to the captaincy, in place of the now-retired Sam Tomkins, has been an inevitability for some time.

“I’m really proud first and foremost,” said Makinson. “It’s been coming and in his performances over the past two or three years, we’ve all seen what Jack can do.

“He’s a back-to-back Man of Steel candidate and all the accolades have come his way. He’s not really very vocal, but he’s honest, hard-working and more than anything he’s a good bloke, and that’s why everyone respects him.”

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