Blast from the Past: Whitehaven win National League 1 Premiership

Just over 10 years ago, Steve McCormack took charge at Whitehaven and oversaw the most successful period in the club’s history.

Replacing Paul Cullen at the helm, McCormack, who had become Super League‘s youngest ever coach when taking charge of Salford aged 28, turned the Cumbrians in to a formidable outfit in the then National League 1.

After finishing sixth in 2003, earning a play-off place, Whitehaven pushed heavy favourites Leigh all the way in 2004, before securing the club’s first ever piece of silverware when they won the National League 1 minor premiership, ahead of Castleford, in 2005.

McCormack tells the story: “I wasn’t too sure whether to take the job after what had happened at Salford, and with the distance, but as soon as I went up, I’d made my mind up.

“To finish 6th in the first season was a good achievement, especially given some of the budgets of the other teams, but during the close season we realised it wasn’t good enough.

“We wanted to kick forward, and recruit a bit quality to play alongside the local players and the Kiwis that were already at the club.”

In came Sam Obst and Mick Nanyn, who went on to score just shy of 50 tries between them in a terrific campaign that saw the Cumbrians finish second in the National League 1 table.

A 30-2 win over Featherstone in the play-offs took them to the Grand Final, with the unthinkable prospect of promotion to Super League.

But the big day out ended in the cruellest of fashions, as Whitehaven were beaten 32-16 by hot favourites Leigh after extra time.

“We were devastated. But it just showed how far the club had come in 12 months. Our performance, the supporters, the coaching staff, the players – we couldn’t have done anything more.

“It would have been a big change, with the club going full-time and players having to give their jobs up. But we had planned for it, we had plans to become a big club and it was a massive disappointment.”

With Leigh going up, Castleford came down from the top flight, and retained much of their Super League squad with the view to securing an immediate return.

But Whitehaven weren’t going to make it easy, and went toe-to-toe with the Tigers throughout the campaign. Ultimately, a 19-16 win over Castleford at the Recre in August was the decisive result that saw Whitehaven finish top of National League 1, and claim the first piece of silverware in their 60 year history.

“We wanted to show that we weren’t one season wonders, and I think we shocked a lot of people.

“The first session after the Grand Final defeat, we set out goals, and then the first game of the season we lost against Workington, and that brought us back down to earth.

“We’d gone from a Grand Final to getting hammered, and it was the best thing that could have happened.”

Having secured the minor premiership, and a home tie in the play-offs, Whitehaven welcomed Castleford to the Recre for the qualifying semi-final.

It turned to be one of the greatest occasions in the club’s history, as 6,154 people packed out the ground and saw the hosts overturn an 18-0 deficit to win 32-22 and book a place in their second successive Grand Final, before lifting the National League 1 league trophy after the game.

“That match sticks in the memory more than anything. We were 18-0 down after something like 15 minutes, and we went in at half time, and there was not one person who didn’t believe we could turn it around.

“The atmosphere was unbelievable. And the fans got to see us lift that first trophy after the match.”

Unfortunately, another trophy, and possible promotion to Super League, was denied a fortnight later when a red-hot Castleford beat Whitehaven 36-8 at Widnes, in what turned out to be McCormack’s last game in charge.

“It was one of the most disappointing matches I’ve ever been involved in.

“There had been a debate about whether we should have been presented with the trophy at the game before, but people saw that as the ultimate achievement, and our preparation for the final was good.

“Everything Castleford did on the day turned to gold, and the likes of Brad Davis, Adrian Vowles and Andrew Henderson were exceptional.”

The following day, a disappointed McCormack wanted to cancel a civic reception planned for the club to showcase the National League 1 minor premiership title, but he was persuaded to go by Des Byrne.

“We had an open top bus to parade the trophy, and there were thousands of people there in the pouring down rain.

“The whole town was out. It was a day I’ll never forget.

“If you speak to anyone be it a player, coach or supporter, they will tell you it was fantastic few years. I have such fond memories of my time at Whitehaven.

“Finishing second and then first, and appearing in two Grand Finals was fantastic for the club.”

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