Widnes lead the way in race to reach Super League
Denis Betts' side look poised to get new licence but Barrow and Halifax have not given up hope. All will be decided today.
They will be celebrating by lunch-time today at one of rugby league's traditional bastions. At Barrow, Halifax or, most likely, Widnes, they will be absorbing the good news that they will be in Super League next season – and they will not have thrown a pass or made a tackle to get there.
Under the terms of Super League's licensing system, one of those clubs from the Championship will be given the green light to play at the top level for the next three years. Their playing records are just one of the criteria that have been taken into account in making the decision as to which one it will be.
Understandably, each of the trio believes that it has a unique selling point. Barrow, for instance, would reintroduce Super League to the hotbed of the game that is Cumbria, which has not had a club at that level since Workington in 1996.
Part of the rationale behind the Barrow application is that supporters would come from West Cumbria, 40 miles away, to watch what they regarded as the county's team – just as they did to follow a wealthy and successful Barrow in the 1950s. It's a lovely theory, but one which is likely to remain unproven.
Halifax, on the other hand, can point to several years as a viable Super League club before they imploded. The difference now is that they are securely settled at a redeveloped Shay, a perfectly adequate stadium for Super League. The only thing wrong is its location. One of the questions the panel making the decision has had to ask itself is whether Super League needs another club almost within walking distance of Huddersfield and Bradford.
Halifax have also done themselves few favours with their erratic form. They came good after a patchy season last year to win the Championship Grand Final, but at this admittedly early stage of the campaign they are rock-bottom of the table.
Mind you, none of the candidates is in what you could call prime form. Barrow sacked their high-profile coaching appointment Garry Schofield after failing miserably to reach the knockout stages of the Northern Rail Cup, while Widnes clearly have a long way to go.
On Sunday, for example, they lost 54-16 to Leigh, after leading 16-8 at half-time – not a performance that had Super League potential writ large upon it.
This, of course, is of limited relevance, because whoever gets the nod today will immediately start building a very different-looking team in time for next season.
Widnes have what their coach, Denis Betts, calls "a lot of irons in a lot of fire" and they are also strong at Academy level. All the same, they probably need to recruit more new players than they have allowed themselves to admit.
They are also close to Warrington and St Helens, but they have a number of other factors going for them. One of them is the Stobart Stadium, to which it is hard to object, given it is already staging Super League matches as Saints' temporary home.
Most of all, Widnes have given the firm impression, since they were rejected because of a previous regime's financial indiscretions in 2008, that they are in for the long haul.
They have not wallowed in victimhood; they have set about improving themselves as a club and they have put together an impressively professional application.
They have also been careful to avoid celebrating prematurely; they don't want to be like the winger who loses the ball over the try-line saluting the crowd. "We aren't taking anything for granted," says Betts, whose own experience and profile form one of Widnes's assets. "But if there's a better application, it's a very well-kept secret."
The three contenders
History Fallen giants – known as the "Cup Kings" in the 1970s and 1980s.
Recent achievement Northern Rail Cup winners in 2007 and 2009.
Current form Mid-table after two defeats.
Strengths Solid administration, good stadium and great heritage.
Weaknesses On doorstep of existing Super League clubs. Very ordinary squad at the moment.
Best player Ben Kavanagh – gifted young forward shown the door by Wigan, but full of Super League potential.
History Sporadic success over the years, including a flourish in the late 1980s.
Recent achievement Championship winners 2010.
Current form Bottom of Championship after two defeats.
Strengths Decent redeveloped stadium shared with football club.
Weaknesses Surrounded by Super League clubs. Wildly inconsistent on the field.
Best player Ben Black is a typical Australian half-back, with the pace to make breaks and the guile to set up others.
History The "Millionaire" club of the 1950s with a total of five Wembley finals.
Recent achievement Championship winners 2009.
Current form Sacked their coach after failing to progress in Northern Rail Cup.
Strengths Inclusion would expand competition's reach by taking it back to Cumbria.
Weaknesses Their stadium is a long way from Super League's desired standard.
Best player Jamie Rooney's Super League chances might have gone, but he remains Barrow's class act.
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