They used to be known as the Cup kings, but according to Widnes this season's Cup final has come early and takes place at Castleford today. Super League's newest side put up a magnificent performance in their debut game last weekend, but finished up empty-handed after being pipped 15-14 by St Helens.
"That makes this our Cup final," says their new Australian prop, Robert Relf. "It's already our most important game of the season, in that it's vital that we bounce back and win." Relf's low-slung, no-frills style – honed at Canterbury and North Queensland – typified Widnes' approach against Saints, although it was his fellow Aussie and new club captain, Steve Carter, who probably articulated best what is required of the side this year.
"Steve got us all together in the changing rooms after and told us that the way we had got into Saints' faces was the way we have to play all season – starting with Cas," said Relf.
Vigorous defence from the likes of Relf, Carter and the raw but highly promising David Mills came close to knocking St Helens out of their imperious stride at the Halton Stadium, but Widnes know that raising their game against obvious rivals will not be enough in itself to keep them in Super League.
Castleford is not an easy place to begin an away campaign. The Tigers have regrouped well this season after the loss of their coach, Stuart Raper, midway through last year and look ready to make a sustained bid for the play-offs.
Graham Steadman seems to have made a shrewd move by appointing young Danny Orr as captain; his link with Mitch Healey at half-back is beginning to thrive. The signing of the Australian hooker, Wayne Bartrim, looks a very good one and Steadman has the bonus – unusual even at this stage of the season – of a fully fit squad, apart from the long-term absentee Barrie-Jon Mather.
Bradford have, by their enviable standards, a depleted back division for their first home game of the season, against Warrington. Apart from the suspended Leon Pryce, Brian Noble will be without Lesley Vainikolo, whose torn hamstring will keep him out for a month, and Michael Withers, who will probably have to rest a groin strain.
Against that, Scott Naylor should be fit to return and there could be a rare first- team opportunity for Paul Sykes at full-back. Sykes was impressive on loan to the London Broncos last season, but has been shunted off to the Bulls' rugby union branch office at Wakefield recently.
Bradford will have little idea what to expect from a reconstructed Warrington, but will be warned not to regard them as dead and buried by last week's comeback against Halifax. The Wolves came back from 16-0 down to win, which at least hints at a new resilience.
Halifax are at home to Wakefield in a match of great significance to the Trinity coach, Peter Roe, who still bristles at the way he was sacked by Halifax a decade ago. Wakefield are sweating on the fitness of their influential half-back Brad Davis for a game in which they would love to pick up points to kick-start a campaign in which survival is the main priority.