Are Widnes’ games a bit meaningless

It seems likely that in less than 24 hours’ time Widnes Vikings will have received confirmation of a return to Super League for 2012. The RFL will announce tomorrow morning which of the Championship applicants will be granted a Super League license, and most believe it to be a foregone conclusion with Widnes Vikings getting the nod over Barrow and Halifax.

Although Widnes are certainly deserve to be favourites I can’t shake the feeling that all renders the actual playing of games a bit, well, meaningless.

I’d thought this for a while, but two weeks ago it really hit home. Widnes had just been beaten 18-10 by Hunslet, quite a shock result given the Vikings’ previously unbeaten state. But reading the post-match reaction on Twitter I came across this post: “With respect to Hunslet, if they had won by 50 points it wouldn’t stop Widnes getting a Super League Licence – that’s a FACT!” And there it is – the result on the pitch doesn’t even matter, Widnes will still be moving into Super League next season.

The same goes for last week’s 54-16 defeat by Leigh at the LSV Stadium. Widnes fans might be worried about a second-half capitulation that would have embarrassed any team in the league; instead all that is swept to one side by the eager anticipation of tomorrow’s announcement.

Although there are arguments as to why a licensing system makes more sense, this is a problem. On-the-field activity, the actual playing of the game, can be rendered meaningless, relegated by discussions over who has the best business plan, the highest attendances, the largest potential fan base, the best sponsorship deals, the most promising youth set-up and the newest, shiniest stadium. Under promotion and relegation these things speak for themselves in collectively building a successful team that can win promotion; under licensing they’re examined bit by bit and the RFL decide which team they want.

A few years ago I had an email suggesting that Super League licensing was akin to natural selection, but this blatantly isn’t the case. Promotion and relegation is natural selection; licensing is more like selective breeding, or even eugenics – what might be termed unnatural selection, as the RFL are the ones doing the selecting.

It could be argued that on-the-pitch events are still important, as clubs have to win the Northern Rail Cup or appear in a Championship Grand Final in order to apply. After all Widnes qualified by winning the NRC, beating Halifax in the semi-final and Barrow in the final at Blackpool; therefore the other license-seeking clubs could have stopped Widnes from being able to submit an application. But that was back in 2009, and Widnes have done very little on the field since. That season they finished fourth, and last season fifth, losing the NRC final to Batley and being knocked out of the Championship play-offs by Barrow 38-0. It’s almost as though the club knew that on-field performance was no longer the priority.

None of this is to say that Widnes won’t deserve Super League if the decision goes the way we all expect. No, they’ve played the licensing game properly, and based on the criteria are more fit for Super League than any other Championship club; more fit, in fact, than a couple of Super League clubs we could mention. I for one hope the Chemics can make a success of it, because it would be great to see the former Cup Kings and World Champions bring back the glory days of yesteryear.

Keep Your Eye on Rugby League

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