Cumbria’s Championship trio something to savour in 2022

Gareth Walker relishes the prospect of three Cumbrian clubs in the Championship next year

Workington Town’s play-off final win over Doncaster completed a major 2021 Cumbrian resurgence.

Town’s elevation to the second tier meant the county’s three professional clubs all enjoyed a campaign of major success – and will all now compete in the second tier.

Whitehaven became one of the stories of the year under Gary Charlton, their late season surge seeing them usurp a host of bigger spending rivals to make the play-offs, where they pushed Halifax right to the closing stages.

Barrow Raiders had already secured promotion by that stage, concluding a campaign of consistency under experienced coach Paul Crarey to rejoin the Championship.

Then Chris Thorman’s Town completed the Cumbrian treble, eventually seeing off the challenge of the Dons amid jubilant scenes at Derwent Park.

That has, inevitably, led to social media chatter about the seemingly age-old discussion about whether a Cumbrian team would work in Super League.

But this is not a column going down that particularly winding round.

Instead, it is a celebration of three traditional, proud clubs all on the crest of the wave at present, and potentially benefitting from each other’s success in 2022.

The six all-Cumbrian clashes that will take place next year should attract bumper crowds, and each club will start the season with high hopes that they can build on their recent successes.

Both Barrow and Workington will be acutely aware of how difficult the step between third and second tiers can be, having made it themselves in the not-too-distant past.

Similarly, Haven were struggling in their first season after promotion when the global pandemic curtailed the 2020 season, before regrouping and thriving this year.

There will still be some caution at the Recreation Ground too – York City Knights have shown that one season of relative success at this level does not grant an automatic pass into the higher reaches of a notoriously competitive division.

But there is excitement too under new coach Jonty Gorley, with Charlton having moved upstairs to become director of rugby.

Gorley’s Barrow counterpart Crarey knows all about what it takes to survive in the Championship, and Workington’s Thorman will be relishing the task of returning to this level, having coached York there in 2012.

The other big factor in the three clubs’ success is the number of talented Cumbrian players that will now feature in the Championship next season.

The progress of all three teams has been built around a local nucleus, and it will be fascinating to see the impact they can have again in 2022.

Charlton was quick to highlight the contribution of industrious loose forward Tom Wilkinson in these pages two months ago, with the Askam product getting through a mountain of work.

Stand-off or centre Karl Dixon was a latecomer to the professional game, but has adapted superbly and will be a key man again, while winger Andrew Bulman had a big year after rejoining following a brief spell in Hull FC’s Academy.

At Barrow, Mark Tyson was another relatively late switcher to the pro ranks but has fitted right in at centre, while Crarey described Tom Hopkins’ performances in only his second year as “sensational”.

Big things are tipped of young halfback duo Ryan Johnston and Jake Carter, while Tee Riston – who started at Town after having graduated from the old Cumbria Storm Academy side – has the potential to be one of the most exciting players outside of Super League.

At Workington, Thorman – like Crarey and Charlton before him – was quick to highlight the importance of a strong local presence in his side and has actively built bridges with community clubs during his tenure.

Former Millom players Marcus O’Brien and Ethan Bickerdike are prime examples of that, while Conor Fitszimmons has thrived at his hometown club after spells with first Castleford and then Newcastle.

These are just a handful of examples of the wealth of talent from the area that has helped put Cumbria firmly back on the Rugby League map.

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