Merged Cumbrian outfit points the way forward

If there is one thing to be learned from the forthcoming Rugby League Nines tournament, it is to watch Team Cumbria closely.

In what could possibly be a groundbreaking partnership, Whitehaven and Workington have linked up to provide a team for the month-long competition, which also includes 11 Super League sides, Widnes, Featherstone, Halifax and the British Police.

For years many have pointed at Cumbria as a location for a Super League franchise, with plenty of players brought through the ranks, and then being forced to move down the M6 to get their break.

Both Whitehaven and Workington find themselves in Championship 1, and the current re-structuring of the Championships may prove pivotal for the future of the professional game in west Cumbria.

While Whitehaven are pressing on with exciting plans for a new stadium, albeit a reduced capacity of 5,000, on the site of their existing Recreation Ground, Workington appear to be struggling with dwindling crowds, some 16 years after their single season in Super League, still the only time Cumbria has had a presence in the top flight in the summer era.

Financial problems have gripped both clubs in recent years, and Whitehaven were in administration as recently as last autumn, although that blow seems to have freed them up of previous hinderances and as such they are now moving forward as a business.

Rumour has it that the RFL are as keen as anybody to see a Cumbrian outfit forge its way through the ranks and in to the top flight, with a suggestion that the same assistance could be given as there has been for the likes of Crusaders in recent seasons.

The problem is, neither Whitehaven or Workington are strong enough as single entities to force this matter themselves. The merged team for the nines is likely to provide an ideal opportunity to investigate a potential long term joint venture.

The arguments against mergers are obvious, but with Workington turning out in front of just 544 on Sunday, one of their highest attendances of the season, maybe it’s going to take upsetting a few to take the game forward.

The long term vision for rugby league in Cumbria is surely to have a franchise in Super League, with both Whitehaven and Workington retaining their identities in the Championship or Conference system, acting as feeder clubs, with dual-registration players gaining experience either way. Much like the successful partnership between Crusaders and South Wales Scorpions, and the fledgling link up between Harlequins and London Skolars, reinforced by the tries scored by Quins’ Lamont Bryan in the Skolars’ maiden win of 2011 against Rochdale at the weekend.

You can even get Team Cumbria merchandise off the back of the 9s event, and in terms of sports business, a merger makes sense. It’s up to the fans, and of course the clubs themselves, to embrace any potential change. Because while both teams struggle, the merger issue is never going to go away. Is the re-structured Championship big enough for the two Cumbrian clubs? We’ll see.

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