McCormack to complete Whitehaven's long journey

Victory over Leigh tomorrow will lift a once-dying club into the Super League

When Steve Mccormack makes the relatively short journey to Widnes' Halton Stadium tomorrow, it will make all the interminable hours slogging up and down the M6 worthwhile.

"The Motorway of Broken Dreams" has traditionally worn down those who try to commute to Cumbria to play or coach rugby league.

"I do about 1200 or 1300 miles a week," says McCormack, who takes his Whitehaven team into the National League One Grand Final against Leigh with a place in Super League at stake. "It's a long time away from the family, but days like the Grand Final make up for all that."

Another compensation is the mood that he has sensed in his adopted town this week. "I've never experienced anything quite like it, even when I was growing up in Wigan and they were going to Wembley every year - although it reminds me of that."

McCormack still lives in Wigan - hence his peripatetic lifestyle - but it is his players he will be asking to go the extra mile tomorrow.

They have already played Leigh four times this season and have lost three of them, but theirs is the camp that seems the more relaxed in the build-up to the match that really matters.

The National League dinner this week was a case in point. Haven swept the board in all the major award categories and Leigh - and particularly their coach, Darren Abram - made it clear that they felt hard done by.

"If it had been the other way and Leigh had won everything, I would have been the first to congratulate them," McCormack says. "But I suppose everyone's not the same."

His own philosophy of the game has been forged by some major disappointments. Forced by injury to give up playing at an early age, he worked his way up the coaching ladder to be appointed a very young first-team coach by Salford before being sacked.

Whitehaven, where Paul Cullen cut his coaching teeth before taking charge at Warrington, threw him a lifeline and he has continued the good work that has revived a club which had been close to moribund.

Tomorrow is the first major final since Haven was admitted to the Rugby League in 1948, so it is hardly surprising that excitement is running high on the Cumbrian coast. The prospect of competing in Super League is a daunting one, but it is one that Whitehaven, with their ambitious plans for ground improvements, are determined to grasp.

"You would be surprised at some of the players who will be available if we go up," McCormack says. "Although I also believe that we've got the basis of a Super League side already here."

One who certainly figures in those long-term plans is Sam Obst, the Australian scrum-half brought in midway through the season and the obvious choice as National League One Player of the Year.

"It was a bit of a culture shock for him when he first came over, but he has really thrown himself into it - on and off the field, because he does a lot of development work for us around the town."

For all Obst's obvious star quality, it is Leigh who have the resources to win the game, on paper at least.

Even without the now-retired Tommy Martyn, they have players like Neil Turley and Paul Rowley, who would get a game in many Super League sides, and an impressively hard-working back row of David Larder, Oliver Wilkes and Ian Knott.

But in three previous Grand Finals, Leigh have fallen into the trap of losing their discipline. That has been a focus for Abram since he took over at the start of the season and the improvement in that area has been clear - but they have not been under the sort of pressure that McCormack's men will put them under at Widnes.

For McCormack, victory would have one major, labour-saving consequence. "We would have to move up there," he says. Crash courses in Cumbrian for the kids is a price worth paying.

The National League One Grand Final is the climax of a remarkably varied day's rugby at the Halton Stadium. It begins with the National League Three Grand Final, between two clubs who have come into that competition from opposite directions.

Coventry are an outpost club ambitious enough to have brought in five players from Australia this season, whilst Warrington-Woolston were one of the leading lights in the amateur leagues still played in winter before deciding to switch their attention to summer rugby.

The meat in the sandwich is the National League One Qualifying Final, which could see Halifax complete their precipitous descent from Super League by dropping into National League Two if they lose to York. That in itself would mark a transformation, because York folded two-and-a-half years ago and the re-born club has shown a vigour which the old one lacked.

Comments