There are less than two weeks until the start of the new Super League season, and most eyes will be upon Widnes for their opening game against Wakefield.
It is an interesting match-up on and off the field. The Vikings return to the big time for the first time since 2005 after a six year spell in the Championship that yielded just two Northern Rail Cup triumphs and three final defeats – two of which were Grand Final defeats to Hull KR and Castleford in 2006 and 2007 when promotion was then at stake.
For many Wakefield fans, playing a league match on February 3rd 2012 at the Stobart Stadium seemed very unlikely in early July, when they were odds on favourites for the chop when the Super League licences were announced.
But they were handed a reprieve thanks to the demise of Crusaders, which is a story in itself. Since, the Wildcats have gone about a re-structure both on and off the pitch, promising improvements to their Rapid Solicitors Stadium home, while they continue their battle to secure planning permission and funding for a new long term base.
Their new owner, Andrew Glover, has rejuvenated the club. New partnerships and initiatives have been implemented, a closer relationship with fans and a new look club logo have added to the positivity surrounding the club. They’re even putting on discounted coaches for away games this year to drum up as much support for Richard Agar and his massively new-look squad for 2012.
His passion and enthusiasm mirrors that of Widnes counterpart Steve O’Connor, who refused to criticise and walk away when the Vikings were denied a Super League place during the last licensing process, instead reinstating his commitment to rugby league in the town. Through his links with the Stobart Group, Super League now has a national main sponsor that it may have found harder to find had it not been for this established contact.
For the past three years, O’Connor and Widnes have gone about fulfilling the requirements set down to them by the RFL, even if this has meant underachieving on the pitch since they ticked the on-field requirements box at the very first attempt at the 2009 Northern Rail Cup final.
It still rankles with Championship fans. Featherstone have been the stand out performers for the past two seasons, and yet they saw the RFL’s box-ticking process beyond them at this stage. They should be candidates for the 2015 process (if that indeed goes ahead) – but, as champions, should they be candidates every year regardless?
The justification for the abolition of promotion and relegation centres around the added security afforded to teams at the bottom of the Super League ladder. It prevents the up-and-down nature of the game, that beset the likes of Huddersfield, Salford and Castleford in the early part of the last decade.
But one of the key justifications was that the promoted team didn’t have enough time to assemble a squad that was good enough to be competitive, which is where the comparison between Widnes and Wakefield becomes a little more interesting.
Widnes have had since April 2011 to build their team for Super League 2012, which is only three months fewer than they had when they won promotion from the Northern Ford Premiership in July 2001. Under then coach Neil Kelly, the Vikings made some impact in their first ever season in Super League, flirting with the play-offs for much of the campaign before finishing a credible 7th in the table.
They have recruited unspectacularly, with the additions of Super League experience and quality in the shape of Shaun Briscoe, Jon Clarke and Scott Moore the stand-out signings.
Their recruitment is on-a-par, if not worse, than Wakefield, who were hampered by the fact they only found at the end of July that they would be competing in the top flight in 2012. The Wildcats too have several years in Super League to fall back on, while many critics have pointed at Widnes’ failure to attract a big-name signing to the club – although that wasn’t for the want of trying, having made an audacious attempt to attract Australian legend Darren Lockyer to the club for a final swansong.
The conclusion to this is – what have Widnes been able to do in the extra four months they were afforded thanks to the early announcement of their elevation?
It caused them problems on the field around the time of the announcement, and virtually rendered their games in the Championship meaningless, effecting the integrity of that competition, which deserves respect within its own right.
Lack of momentum
Another problem is that there is a lack of momentum and quality moving up from the second tier, in comparison to if it was a champion team moving up.
The last team to be promoted to Super League who were at risk of relegation the following season were Hull KR in 2006 (although Castleford were promoted in 2007, they couldn’t be relegated by natural means in 2008). Rovers have since gone on to establish themselves as a top eight force, and while they weren’t spectacular in their first season, they managed to survive, mainly thanks to several mainstays from the squad which had won National League 1 so impressively.
This gave them the platform to build upon, to attract new players and to grow as a club. While it is, admittedly, a different scenario now, Widnes do not have this. They have taken players up from the Championship, with the likes of Paddy Flynn, Steve Pickersgill and Ben Kavanagh all expected to play important roles for the Vikings this season, but they hardly had the same impact on the league as the likes of Tom Saxton, Stuart Dickens and Tony Tonks did for Featherstone last campaign.
Being promoted as champions enables you to generate momentum moving forward, and gives you a platform to build upon, with a team that is used to winning.
Widnes may well go on to gel quickly and prove their critics wrong, but it may well dampen the prospects of further Championship clubs being elevated to Super League for primarily off-the-field achievements (save the development of youth) if the Vikings struggle to move up the ladder in the next few years.
Of course, Wakefield find themselves in a similar situation, in that they have a lot of new players who need to bed in quickly. This begs its own question. Has the security of a three-year licence really benefited them that much? They spent much of the last half of 2010 and the first half of 2011 worrying about whether they would be able to retain their licence for 2012, and as such enter this new period with a totally overhauled squad. The licensing process is ultimately creating just as much uncertainty (and not as much excitement off the pitch) as promotion and relegation did.
Widnes, very much a traditional rugby league town, has a team that played 29 rugby league games last season. The biggest cheer of that season? When a big-wig from Red Hall announced live on SKY Sports that they would be playing in a different league that season.
Their progress in Super League will have a telling effect on the future of the licensing system. As a club, the Vikings probably couldn’t have got themselves in much better shape, and any existing Championship club will do well to match Widnes’ off-the-field prowess when playing in that division.
If they fail to deliver on the pitch, it could cause some to point towards re-instating promotion and relegation, which certainly wouldn’t be bad for rugby league as a source of entertainment. There is no doubting the bottom end of the division has been diluted by the lack of meaningful action, as with no threat of relegation, clubs can stumble from game to game without having to worry about the following season.
The added security hasn’t really led to a huge surge in the number of developed youngsters from the lesser clubs – finances are more of a contributor to that – and the artificial growth of clubs, as seen with Crusaders, can have disastrous and potentially detrimental circumstances.
The licensing process continues to have its critics – its supporters will be hoping that Widnes don’t contribute to its downfall. Bring on Super League 2012.