Rugby League: Single division has a single vision

New sponsorship deal helps clubs outside Super League start the new season in optimistic fashion
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THE RACE between professional clubs outside Super League will have a new name and a new profile when their season kicks off this weekend

What were once the first and second divisions are celebrating a sponsorship deal that will see them become the Northern Ford RFL Premiership for 1999 and, provisionally, for two subsequent seasons.

For a competition that has struggled for recognition in recent seasons and which will lose its funding from Sky after next year, the link-up with an international name - or at least its north of England dealerships - is a morale-boosting coup

"The product on the field has improved out of all recognition," the chairman of the soon-to-be-renamed First and Second Division Association, Bob McDermott, said as the deal was announced yesterday. "All it has lacked has been exposure and this money will be used to promote the competition."

The amount involved has not been revealed, but Ford showrooms will also be expected to strike up relationships with their local clubs and advertise the Premiership alongside their new models.

Their hope - and no doubt that of the clubs - is that negotiations for a magazine-style programme on terrestrial television will soon come to a successful conclusion. The clubs excluded from the British game's elite can then realistically hope to be self-supporting.

Apart from carrying a well-known name, the other obvious difference when the season begins on Sunday afternoon will be that two divisions have merged into one, consisting of 18 clubs.

While the carrot of winning the Grand Final at the end of September and elevation to Super League - just as Wakefield did last year - remains in place, the viability of the Premiership depends on the calibre of the competition.

The first division was fiercely competitive and unpredictable last year; there is a danger of more one-sided games now that the weaker clubs from the depths of the Second Division are being asked to step up a level.

Even the worst, though, like Doncaster and Workington, are making strenuous efforts to improve themselves, with outstanding players of their era, like Garry Schofield in South Yorkshire and Andy Platt in Cumbria, spearheading their ambitions.

Lancashire Lynx, coached by another Great Britain stalwart, Steve Hampson, showed in winning the Second Division and reaching the final of the Treize Tournoi that they have potential, but the top five should really come from the sides that performed well in the First Division last time.

Featherstone, heartbroken after falling at the last hurdle, have regrouped well. They were bound to lose players, notably Steve Collins to Gateshead and Karl Pratt to Leeds, but in Hitro Okesene and the returning Brendon Tuuta they believe they have the players to raise spirits and make the Lionheart Stadium as formidable a fortress as it was as plain old Post Office Road.

Hull KR finished second in the table and, although they are still restricted by being in administration, they have hung onto the most exciting player outside Super League, the impeccably loyal Stanley Gene.

Swinton and Widnes are two clubs with excellent facilities and ambitions to step up to Super League, whilst the new Whitehaven coach, Kevin Tamati, believes that he has the talent at his disposal to win the competition.

Of course, this is the stage of the season when everyone is optimistic. But for the community clubs of the game, as they sometimes like to style themselves, this was a day when there was some substance attached to the feel-good sentiments.