Rugby League: High drama ahead in the lower league

Dave Hadfield discovers that there is vibrant rugby life outside Super League
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The Independent Online
THE launch of rugby league's First Division season at Dewsbury last week was double booked with Ann Summers. That might not have been the sort of excitement the clubs outside Super League had in mind, but the signs are that their competition can offer more than mere titillation.

Fixtures kick off today, eight weeks before Super League, and, if that is an illustration of the increasing separation of two branches of the game, it at least gives the Dewsburys, Keighleys and Featherstones the chance to make their own impact.

The suspension of automatic promotion means the First Division, like the Ann Summers party hurriedly transferred to the other side of the ground, must generate its own stimulation. "I'm convinced that it can do that," said Bob Scott, general manager of the First and Second Division Association. "It's impossible to predict which five teams will make our play-offs and that sort of competition can only help raise the game's profile."

There are famous names in the First Division, Widnes and Hull Kingston Rovers among them, but the bookies' favourites for the title are Keighley, the club associated more than any other with the struggle against the disruptive effect that Super League had on their ambitions.

Scott says that there are now clubs who still aspire to Super League and others who concede that "it is not for them". "We are somewhere in the middle," said the Keighley coach, John Kain.

Like many of their peers at various times, Keighley have had to go through a cost-cutting exercise. They were still in administration at the end of last season, have lost several players and are employing those who remain on much-reduced, part-time terms. All the same, the Cougars, who start their campaign at Swinton this afternoon, have some outstanding players at this level in their full-back, Matt Foster, their hooker, Jason Ramshaw, and Simon Irving, a hugely experienced centre who is back after a flirtation with rugby union.

Keighley also have their famously avid supporters, whose enthusiasm can only be heightened by next weekend's fixture - at home to Wigan in the Challenge Cup. "I don't have any difficulty coaching for that game, because there's no expectation," Kain said. "And, to draw a positive from it, it means that we won't have any more distractions from our league programme."

If that smacks of a new realism in the lower divisions, then Kain also takes a detached view of the season as a whole. "I think Whitehaven are favourites. They finished last season strongly and haven't lost any players." Yet the Cumbrians, who could give aboost to a depressed rugby league area by fulfilling that prophesy, start today with a match they could lose, against the equally well-fancied Featherstone.