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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Rugby League: we must have a fresh start – now

IT IS now more than a decade since top-class rugby league was played on a regular basis in Cumbria. And, as things stand, there is precious little prospect of it returning any time soon.

Workington Town played one season in the then newly-launched Super League in 1996. They were outclassed. Out of their depth. Out of their league.

Bearing in mind the club’s proud history, that was a crying shame. But since then things have only got worse.

No matter what reasons or excuses the clubs and their directors come up with for the lack of any real progress in the Cumbrian game, the simple truth is that the fans - and Cumbria is certainly not short of enthusiastic rugby league supporters - deserve better.

And the responsibility to deliver better lies squarely on the shoulders of those running the clubs. Their failure to deliver over the past decade or so brings only shame on them.

Cumbria’s rugby league heritage is at least as robust as those of either Lancashire or Yorkshire. And it must hurt Cumbrian fans to see the now-franchised Super League bending over backwards to attract clubs from Wales and France to the highly-professional top table, while Cumbria’s part-timers struggle to survive on crumbs.

The Perpignan club, Catalan Dragons, was given three years to prove its Super League credentials, without threat of relegation. The Dragons currently lie in second place in the league and it would be difficult to argue that the plan failed.

South Wales’s Celtic Crusaders, based in Bridgend, are working hard, with barely-concealed official encouragement, to put together a business plan which will probably earn them a place, sooner or later, in Super League.

The three Cumbrian clubs, Workington, Whitehaven and Barrow, will all argue that they don’t have the necessary fan base, and commercial backing, to bring in enough money to finance the needs of membership of rugby league’s elite.

That, of course, is true. And it will remain true as long as their only solution is dreaming that one day a miracle will happen and one of the clubs will again make it, solo, to the top flight.

There are no miracle workers in professional sport. There are hard-headed, pragmatic businessmen who make sound judgments and rational decisions, who stand or fall on the performances of their organisations.

Based on performances over the past decade, the Cumbrian clubs don’t appear yet to have identified, or recruited, any of that breed.

But they must. For while they dither, and tell themselves it will all come right in the end, the gap between the National Leagues, where they stumble around having good days and bad days, followed by more bad days, has already widened into a chasm and is growing still.

The realistic view, even without reference to Monday night’s complete humiliation of Whitehaven, is that bridging that gap for any one of the clubs is already impossible.

Yet when the Times & Star opened a debate in 2004 in an attempt to bring together the clubs to at least discuss a county club, and thereby rescue top-level rugby league in Cumbria, petty tribalism kicked in and killed it stone dead.

And that despite the enthusiasm, encouraged by the Times & Star, and which flowed into the debate from the authorities, from the game’s administrators, from rugby league stars past and present, from broadcasters and journalists who share the passion of the game week in, week out.

They all instinctively wanted Cumbrian rugby league to get its act together and at least try to get back in the game, before it was too late.

But those with experience of success were ridiculed, while small minds ruled.

What better time than now to launch a new county rugby league club, keeping the current club structures to feed new talent to the county club, which could easily be based at the new super stadium at Derwent Park?

If nothing is done now, the chance will slip away, a betrayal of the county’s rugby talent and of those future generations of potential stars who will languish in third-rate rugby, doomed to fail by the lack of vision of their elders.

It will be too easy for those ‘elders’ to convince themselves they are “being positive” and chat about how Barrow Raiders are, this year, playing much better than they have for some time, which they are, but still way short of Super League class, ignoring the fact that Whitehaven are playing much worse than last year and that Workington Town have signally failed to show much spark for too many years.

Last year, Town chairman Dave Bowden said the club aimed to be in Super League by 2012. That was greeted by some pundits as a realistic target.

One year on and the club is further away than ever. Super League got better and Town got worse.

Former Great Britain coach Maurice Bamford has suggested this year that a county RL side would have a chance of Super League status.

He was ridiculed, largely by people who know a great deal less about the game than he does.

And Whitehaven chairman Des Byrne greeted the suggestion with the tired plea of the defeated, that people won’t pay twice in a week to watch their favourite sport.

Arrant nonsense.

Ask one of the hundreds of thousands of supporters of Premiership football clubs what it’s worth to watch top-flight sport twice a week.

It would be no surprise to hear the clubs bleat that if they just carry on doing what they are doing for a few more years, success is just around the corner.

It isn’t.

More failure for the clubs, and more disappointment for the fans are the only things waiting around the corner, unless they all put petty differences to one side, find a bit of vision and join forces to launch a county club with Super League intentions.

History, represented by three decades of failure, must be their teacher.

United, they might stand. Divided, they will most certainly fall. And soon.

The fans want Super League rugby. It will be interesting to see how low the attendance figures have to fall before the clubs realise that a subscription to Sky Sports is a better option for fans than paying to stand in the rain watching third-rate rugby.

Have your say

"If the blinkers could be removed from the Reds management".

The 'Reds management' are considering the interests of Workington AFC, why should the Reds support a venture that is detrimental to their interests. The sole purpose of this new stadium to provide Workington Town with a Super League standard stadium paid for with the people of Allerdale's money and hopefully get a Super League franchise.
Town in the Super League, this would be completely unsustainable as there would not be enough support to make this financially viable. Town would require 5,000 – 6,000 minimum to be viable and anyone who believes this is achievable are deluding themselves.

Posted by Paul Armstrrong on 24 May 2008 at 14:36

West Cumbria could support a Super League team with Workington and Whitehaven playing as semi professional teams in the national leagues. Many ex supporters would return to watch the top class teams. I agree with Keiths comment on getting local businesses involved, particularly Allerdale and Copeland stadium provision. If the blinkers could be removed from the Reds management I am sure West Cumbria could have an exciting rugby and soccer future. Without Super League and Football League aims, West Cumbria rugby league and soccer will continue to wither and eventually die

Posted by Ian on 17 May 2008 at 12:48

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