HGoing through the Championship regular season, Leigh Centurions are tipped to stroll to the final and win the Million Pound Game. Having scored an impressive 1,306 points and won 26 of their 27 games this season, Leigh is unlikely to quit. If they do, second-placed Featherstone – the only team to beat Leigh all season, in a wintry mud bath in February – are expected to gain an advantage. But, however unlikely it is, Halifax, Barrow, Batley or York could replace Toulouse Olympique in the Super League next season. That’s the danger when only one team is promoted and it’s done entirely on a play-off system.
Barrow finished fourth, a great achievement in their first season back in the Championship. Barrow, their play-off opponents Batley, are separated by just one point from sixth-placed York. This weekend York travel to Halifax, who have only won two more games than Batley and Barrow in the league. There is little between them.
All five play-off contenders below Leigh – including Featherstone – won at least one of the others. Barrow pushed Featherstone all the way two weeks ago and Fev needed a controversial conversion to push past Halifax last Sunday. The last time Leigh really struggled in a game against Barrow was in June and they still won 30-28. Before that, they hadn’t been beaten since beating Halifax by 10 points in March.
For anything other than a Leigh v Featherstone final, two of the promotion contenders have to do something unusual. But most post-seasons have an unexpected twist somewhere and – as Leeds and Salford have shown at Catalans and Huddersfield respectively – teams that go into the play-offs after a run of must-win games are often prepared better to win tournaments than those teams. after coasting at the end of the season.
It has happened before and not long ago. In 2018 the London Broncos came from nowhere to secure a place in the Qualifiers and then won their last two games before that stunning 4-2 win over odds-on favorites Toronto in the Million Pound Game. The difference then was that the Broncos, while extremely hopeless, were full-time. Depending on who you believe, Leigh’s wage bill is somewhere between five and 10 times that of Barrow this season. There are plenty of Halifax, York, Barrow and Batley players on four-figure salaries, while some of Leigh’s stars are reportedly banking six figures.
It would be no surprise if Barrow beat Batley on Sunday, as they did in August, and they could beat Featherstone, as Batley did in June. That would take Barrow one seismic win away from bringing the Super League back to Cumbria for the first time in 26 years.
Not that Barrow is ready for promotion. Down on the Furness peninsula, they are looking to establish themselves as a second tier club, knowing that any break out of the top 20 clubs under IMG’s restructure could be very damaging if they don’t make the cut. Barrow have put their recent success down to their former players: chairman Steve Neale, head coach Paul Crarey and assistant Steve Rea.
“It’s been an incredible journey coming up last season,” says Crarey. “We don’t want it to end. The fans have been great all year and that has really helped us push forward. We’ll see what we can do in the playoffs.”
Barrow have made a few changes following their previous experience in the Championship, where they only lasted two seasons. Community involvement has increased, crowds are up and they are leading the way with their women’s team, who are having an excellent season in the second tier of the Women’s Super League.
The male players who are based outside the region do their strength and conditioning sessions at home, which enables them to travel up to Furness twice a week for training, and the club arranges transport to save the physical and financial drive .
Whatever happens, Barrow will do well to retain their best talent. Last autumn, Whitehaven pulled off a similar miracle, reaching the play-offs in their first season back in the Championship only to lose star players Lachlan Walmsley and Louis Jouffret to Halifax. They have struggled this year before securing safety in recent weeks.
Barrow winger Therapol Ritson has been on the Super League radar for some time now and is sure to make a move if a financially suitable offer is made. Unpredictable French centre-back Hakim Miloudi has already announced he is accepting an offer elsewhere, while mercurial Maltese half-back Jarrod Sammut turns 36 next year. Super League scouts will also be well aware of lanky Scottish striker Shane Toal.
Whether Cumbria can support a Super League team remains to be seen. He hasn’t had one since 1996, when Workington picked up just five points from 22 games in the inaugural Super League season. In Barrow’s last top-flight season in 1989-90 they came out the same way, winning once in 26 attempts. Whitehaven has not been in the elite since 1984.
All three clubs have since bounced around the bottom two divisions, with Workington going straight back to League 1 this summer. None of them suggested that they might be big enough to take on the elite. All three have spent at least half of the last dozen seasons in the third tier, and in most years, fewer than 3,000 fans have turned out to see the three professional Cumbria clubs in action each week. In recent years, Barrow has averaged 1,200 spectators, with Workington and Whitehaven around 800 each.
Hundreds of other fans support a top-level amateur rugby league in the county. West and South Cumbria are still hotbeds of the game: the county’s top seven clubs are in the National Conference League, with Copeland’s three neighbors – Wath Brow Hornets, Egremont Rangers and Kells – all on course for Premier League status next season. Although participation levels suffer as much in Cumbria as elsewhere: 30 years ago there were 27 clubs in the Cumberland League; there are now 16 clubs in the area, although Furness has managed to retain around a dozen. Fifteen Cumbrian clubs were active last week, which is quite a lot, and the geographical footprint of the code has not diminished.
However, the main link to elite rugby league for this generation of Cumbrians is seeing local players on TV. There has been no full-time academy to develop Cumbrian talent since the RFL closed the Cumbria Storm a few years ago, despite producing the likes of Toal and Ritson. Hull FC are the latest Super League club to take part in the county’s youth development, helping Whitehaven run their center of excellence. Instead the onus is on Cumbria’s community clubs to produce talent.
While one or two Premier League players will emerge from their senior teams – as Kyle Amor did at Hensingham – the majority will spend their teenage years driving up and down the M6 to elite academies, as did England’s Morgan Knowles from Barrow to St Helens. , and Hull KR prop Will Maher from Coniston to Newcastle. There are many barriers to success.
In a very simple step, the NRL brings games to rural towns with an interest in the sport. And yet – despite the likes of Wigan, Huddersfield and Hull all having to leave their stadiums out for the summer for pitch work, and over 5,000 fans watching Whitehaven play St Helens in the Challenge Cup this season – no one ever takes a Super League match. to Cumbria. One obstacle to that is the lack of a suitable stadium.
Whitehaven was supposed to get a new ground to host matches at the 2013 World Cup but they are still waiting. Workington joined eight years ago but lost their own host status for this year’s World Cup after Allerdale council delayed delivering a new stadium to Workington Town to share with Workington Reds football club. Clubs in Barrow also desperately need a new venue. The first club to get a stadium in the 21st century could be primed to start attracting Super League to the region.
At least the county representative team will be back again, as Cumbria XIII take on Jamaica at Workington on October 7th. After that, who knows? Created in 1874, Cumbria will cease to be an administrative county next April, and will be replaced by two new unitary authorities: Cumberland will be re-established in the north-west, Westmorland and Furness in the south and east. If the Cumbria Super League dream dies with Barrow, it may be re-awakened under a new banner.
Watch the World Cup
With five games left in the NRL and Championship, and just three games in the Super League, World Cup coaches are in that period of blind panic waiting for news of injuries to key players that could derail their plans. England boss Shaun Wane has been dealt a major blow by losing St Helens forward Alex Walmsley to a leg injury but Wigan veteran Liam Farrell thinks he could feature after a knee injury ruled him out the other games. Perhaps assuming he would not be selected, Warrington half-back Gareth Widdop has announced his international retirement.
One more thing
Owners – and some fans – of Super League clubs have short memories. Anyone who disparages the Championship and encourages IMG to pull up the drawbridge to prevent ambitious clubs from entering the so-called elite should remember that seven of the dozen current Super League clubs have played in the second division in the summer, and of the other five, only. St Helens haven’t been in a row for the last decade or so. Eight of the 14 clubs that will be in the Championship this season played in the Super League. The fluid is key.
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