I’ve spent the last few days more convinced than ever that Cumbria needs a presence in Super League.
The Betfred Challenge Cup double-header in Whitehaven on Saturday and then Barrow on Sunday may have produced wins for Super League sides St Helens and Huddersfield, but the bigger picture saw a region coming together in huge numbers to back the sport it craves.
We’ve already debated the best route to Super League for Cumbria on The Sportsman this season. But be it by merger or direct promotion for one of the existing Championship sides, one thing is for sure. When you see first-hand what it means to the Cumbrian communities, you are left wondering why on earth they are not playing a bigger part in rugby league at the top level.
For a sport whose raw beauty is so often overshadowed by a penchant for in-fighting, this sun-drenched weekend in Cumbria offered up a huge collective of fans, families, players and staff bursting with gratitude to welcome top-level rugby league to its back garden.
Almost 5000 packed in to the old Recreation Ground to see a strong-willed Whitehaven undone by the class of Cup holders Saints. Most of those were still there half an hour after the hooter getting photos with their heroes, having shirts signed, and throwing balls about under the posts to reenact the action they’d love to see more of.
Conducting post-match interviews live on The Sportsman amidst this kaleidoscope of colour was an absolute raucous joy. These were scenes replicated by the 3000+ at Barrow 24 hours later as the Raiders took Huddersfield all the way. Two crowds comparable, if not better than most of the other gates at Super League grounds over Cup weekend.
Kyle Amor was at both games, scoring a try in the Saints win at his hometown club Whitehaven before working at Barrow for the BBC. His “homecoming” had occupied such a huge part in his mind during the week that he had barely slept, such was his appreciation for what the event meant to the region and how desperate he was therefore to be a part of it.
“I’ve done some amazing things with this club and I can’t tell you how nervous I was before that game,” he told me.
“There’s just something beautiful about playing in these old grounds, 5000 begins to sound like 15,000 so it was a terrific day for the town and the people of Cumbria. A really good day for rugby league all round.”
The towns buzz of these moments and deserve more of them. From the steward who gleefully took £2 off me to park inside the ground (“I’m even charging the players to park in here today lad”) to the players and coaches who work other jobs all week and then rugby on the weekend, it just felt so special.
The Rugby Football League chief executive Ralph Rimmer is a passionate advocate of the region and has often discussed a desire to work out how best to develop it. Rimmer enjoyed the beautiful drive through the lakes in his motorbike leathers on Sunday for the game at Barrow where he once played.
At present that development question remains unanswered other than to receive this latest powerful guarantee that the passion, desire and support is ready and waiting to make it work.
Away from these sunny Cumbrian afternoons, the harsh reality for Leeds was that there would be no immediate response to coach Richard Agar’s resignation.
Far from it, the Rhinos’ season took another hammer blow in a woeful home Cup exit to another struggling side in rivals Castleford.
As stated in last week’s column there is no succession plan, no desirable coaching options nearby, and CEO Gary Hetherington has thus hastily set up a series of meetings with prospective candidates in Australia and will fly out imminently.
And a word on the long-awaited return of Betfred League One, which we look forward to bringing you exclusive action on The Sportsman this season.
I was at Oldham versus much-fancied Keighley Cougars on Sunday to see the Cougars get off to a flyer against a worryingly out-of-sorts Oldham who are unrecognisable from the club who graced Super League in its first two seasons.
The game though, brought home the huge sacrifices and difficulties faced just to survive at this level. Keighley‘s bus didn’t turn up so they had to scramble alternative transport to the game. One of their starting players then dropped out on game day because his partner needed him at home, while an Oldham star was left in tears with a serious knee injury that will likely threaten both his rugby season and main income elsewhere while he recovers.
Life’s rich tapestry is embodied within rugby league.
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