Murdock turns Workington into Cumbria's angels of the North

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The Independent Online

We are, admittedly, only in the very early stages of a long and gruelling season in the Northern Ford Premiership, but there are signs of a modest revival on rugby league's forgotten frontier.

Last season, none of Cumbria's three professional clubs made the division's play-offs. That is despite the county staging more amateur rugby league, per head of population, than anywhere in Britain and producing more than its fair share of promising junior players.

But only Workington Town, for one ill-fated season, have tasted the delights of Super League. Neither they, nor Whitehaven, nor Barrow, have made a serious bid for success, even at their modest level, since. Could it be different this time? After two rounds Workington and Whitehaven are among the handful of sides with maximum points and that should remain after this weekend.

Coached by Gary Murdock, Workington have shown resilience in coming back in their two games to beat Sheffield Eagles and Featherstone. They made one of the most significant signings of the close-season when they recruited the play-making loose forward, Martin Wood, and he should be on the winning side when Town meet his previous club, Keighley, today.

A merger with their near-neighbours on the Cumbrian coast at Whitehaven has been something that Workington have flirted with in the past. The prospect of a Cumbrian "super club" has receded, but Haven are looking healthier as an individual entity than they have for some years.

Paul Cullen is rated as one of the most promising young coaches in the game – so much so that it raised eyebrows when he took what has frequently been the heartbreak route north to Cumbria. His side showed dramatic improvement last season, almost making the play-offs despite a dreadful start to the campaign. Wins so far over York and – more significantly – Dewsbury suggest that they could be ready to progress further this time.

Certainly Chorley – even with the redoubtable Tim Street making his debut – should not be able to put the brakes on them today, although the form of the Whitehaven stand-off, Rob Purdham, could see him moving onwards and upwards before long.

That leaves Barrow, beaten at Leigh on the opening day, but easy winners over York last week and, in some ways, perhaps the most interesting case of the three. Separated from the other two by 30-odd miles of coast and a more glamorous history, they have been through a series of readjustments.

At one stage, they were notionally merged with Carlisle, up at the other end of the county. That has now been ruled out, but Barrow have entered into a partnership of another kind, with the Super League giants, St Helens.

Those two clubs have embarked upon a sort of big brother, little brother relationship that is intended to help both. So far, it has seen Barrow's highly-promising back Ade Gardner move to Saints, with Rodney Bowker moving in the opposite direction. They are also to get the former Great Britain prop, Sonny Nickle.

In the meantime, Barrow go to Dewsbury with every prospect of gaining a second victory and continuing to do their bit to give the top half of the table a Cumbrian accent.