Following Whitehaven’s relegation and impending administration, it is hard to ignore the seemingly unshakeable option of a Cumbrian merger.
Forget Barrow, the only feasible merger that could happen in Cumbria is between Whitehaven and Workington, and even then it would be a very controversial move at that.
The problem isn’t necessarily the long term aims of a Cumbrian franchise, it’s more the issues within the interim. In the long term, you could have a Cumbrian Super League team in a brand new stadium at a central location, with both Whitehaven and Workington retaining their status as clubs in the Championships, providing players through their production systems for the Super League club, who would in turn offer players up on the dual-registration deal. It would work in a similar to way to how Crusaders and Scorpions have began their fledgling partnership in 2010.
Of course, a straight merger between the two clubs is unlikely to be supported. It is often spouted as a solution by fans, but all sorts of issues such as stadium location, name and the animosity between fans would put paid to that. Heck, Wakefield and Castleford couldn’t even agree on a ground share as separate teams, let alone a merger of the two clubs.
But the success of rugby league in Cumbria must be paramount to the people behind the sport in that region. We often hear from pundits that Cumbria is crying out for Super League, but as it is, no one is bothering to produce the platform for it. Sure, Barrow have spent big in recent seasons and enjoyed good success on the field, but their off-field structure, in terms of facilities, youth development and fan base, still fall way short of what is required.
Workington had their time in Super League at the very beginning, and were unfortunate that they were not given the backing they required to fulfil their potential. What they would have done to gain the support that the likes of Paris, Catalans, Harlequins and Crusaders have had in recent years.
As it is now, both Cumbrian clubs are battling it out in the third tier of professional rugby league, in front of small crowds in tired old grounds. Behind this is a thriving amateur game, churning out talent that continues to get cherry picked by bigger clubs. Shaun Lunt being one example, started out at Workington before being plucked from the lower leagues by Huddersfield, and he’s been turned in to one of the best hookers in Super League and an England international to boot. Imagine if Cumbria had their own Super League club to help these players achieve their ambitions within the game.
It all comes down to the fans. Are they happy just watching their own club merely survive year upon year? Or do they want to strive for something more? As separate entities, it is becoming more and more difficult to imagine either Whitehaven or Workington making progress to the top flight. Look at the sheer resource and quality Widnes have needed to put themselves in pole position for a franchise in 2012.
A new club, a new stadium, solid partnerships with the two existing clubs playing in the semi-professional leagues and a straight pathway for youngsters in Cumbria to work their way up through the amateur levels, to the Championships and through to Super League, all on their doorstep. Sounds good in principle, but it’s feasibility isn’t for me and you to decide, it’s for rugby league fans in Cumbria.