Workington's glory revived by Leeds visit

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The Independent Online

Cumbria is used to regarding itself as rugby league's forgotten frontier, but the luck of the draw in the Powergen Challenge Cup has opened up the prospect of a brighter future for one of its proud old clubs.

Workington Town were in the Super League when it started up in 1996. Since then, saddled with debts, they have been down and almost out. When they came out of the velvet bag with Leeds, however, they found that they still have friends in the game.

"The Rhinos were straight on the phone, wanting to come up and help us promote the game," said June Kennedy, who has 26 years' experience of trying to hold Town together - first as their secretary and now as the chief executive.

Thus it was that this week, her Rhinos counterpart, Gary Hetherington, and two players who had given up their day off - Barrie McDermott and Rob Burrow - were in the town that has recently been assessed as the most depressed in Europe, according to EC criteria, to beat the drum for the club and the Cup.

The game's most famous trophy was there with McDermott and Burrow as they drew Town's weekly lottery in a local pub, and the two players were booked in for schools' coaching sessions in the afternoon.

"They don't get to see Super League players here any more, except on TV, so this is the chance to stir up some interest," Hetherington said. "It's partly vested interest for us, because we get half the gate, but we think we've got a duty to do things like this as well."

The Rhinos boss has vivid memories of playing at Workington in the days when they routinely had the most feared pack in the country. "Even in 1995, when they played Leeds in the Cup, they brought 55 buses to Headingley," he recalled.

Since then, gates have dwindled to a few hundred, but Sunday's tie could mark a genuine turning of the tide. Leeds expect to bring 2,500 on what used to be one of the game's favourite days out. If heightened local interest brings the crowd up to 5,000, says Kennedy, Town could pay off their debts and be in the black for the first time in years.

That could be the launching pad for a brighter future. The club's ground at Derwent Park is basic and tired, but there are plans for a new stadium, almost across the road at the Borough Park home of the local football side, Workington Reds.

There are, because of the area's economic problems, plenty of grants available to build a shared ground that will comfortably meet Super League criteria and that has started the people of Workington dreaming of regaining the status they briefly held.

"Unless you have dreams you'll never reach them," says the club's new coach, Gerard Stokes, a New Zealander who played for them when they were still a force in the land in the early 1980s.

"Cumbria's an obvious place for another Super League club to come from. I know France is being looked at pretty hard, but I think it would be nice if it stayed as the English Super League."

Hetherington, one of that competition's most influential voices, is equally positive. "This is one area that could look to a future in Super League," he said. "Cumbria is the missing piece of the jigsaw."

Nobody seriously expects the part-timers of Workington to take a Super League scalp this weekend, but Stokes promises that the National League 2 side will not "stand back in awe of them".

His captain, Jamie Beaumont, sees it as an opportunity. "We wanted a big game and we got a big game," he said. "It's our chance to test ourselves against some of the best players in the world."

It will no doubt be those players, coached by the former Workington player, Tony Smith, who will progress into the fifth-round draw, but they will have done their opponents some tangible good as they pass through.

West Cumbria showed signs of reawakening last October, when there was a big crowd at neighbouring Whitehaven to see the revival of the county team. Another bumper attendance on Sunday could mark the renaissance of a club with a heritage, a history and, once more, a future.