Last week, League Express published this article by journalist Matthew Shaw, previewing 2017 for the Widnes Vikings with their head coach Denis Betts. Every week, League Express will have previews like this from a club in Super League, the Championship and League 1. Make sure you get the next issue for previews from St Helens, Halifax and Hunslet.
Sport, traditionally, is a fickle business.
We live in a results-based world, a community that demands miraculous rises and holds lofty expectations.
The trouble is that expectations set internally and externally are often quite different, and that can have a detrimental effect.
That leads to the case of Widnes Vikings. As a club, their steady rise has gone almost unnoticed. There hasn’t been a miraculous rise to prominence or a desperation to rise to the top. Instead, their plan has been to gradually improve in an achievable manner.
That mentality has resulted in constant progression at the Select Security Stadium, which resulted in their highest league finish in 17 years last season.
But now Widnes face a predicament. What constitutes success in 2017?
The reality is that consolidating their place in the top eight would be an unbelievable accomplishment. Don’t forget, this is a club that doesn’t spend the salary cap, has one of the lowest average attendances in Super League and lacks the financial strength so many of their rivals boast. Even now, Widnes are defying the odds.
However, fans have now come to expect annual success, none more so than now, following their impressive start to 2016, and that leaves their coach Denis Betts with big expectations to fulfil, which makes Widnes’ rise to the top a little more difficult moving forward.
Despite that, Betts’ ambitions remain exactly the same as they were a year ago, and the year before that – progress!
“Progression is about going further up the table,” Betts admits.
“We’re getting to that stage now where we know that we are a good side.
“Last year, we were one or two results off making the top six. We had opportunities and we started well, but we just faced some adversity with injuries.
“We are looking to move up the table again. There are a lot of little things we’re looking at throughout the club. Scoring more tries, staying in the positive in the for and against columns, making more breaks. If we get them right we know we’ll move forward.
“They’re coaching tools, and they’re indicators of what we’re doing well. If you’re making less tackles than last year, you’re probably leaking more points. You have to break it down to starting points. You can’t just say score a try, you have to figure out where you can improve to score more tries. Players work best under those circumstances when they know what is expected of them.”
In order to achieve their goals, Betts has made assembling a strong squad his priority.
Tom Armstrong, the former Leigh centre, is the only new addition to the squad so far, while Paddy Flynn and Setaimata Sa have departed.
Like so many other clubs, the injuries got on top of the Vikings just after Easter, but they weren’t as well equipped to deal with the absences as some others, which has resulted in Betts’ plans to bolster his squad.
“At one stage we had lost four games in two weeks, and two of those were by less than a score,” he says.
“They’re hard to take, but it’s the strength of your squad that gets you through those periods.
“Ultimately, you look at Wigan and they’ve got a lot of depth. They blooded a lot of young lads last year, but they’ve got their best players in their Academy and they’ve pushed forward and become Super League players. You have to admire Wigan after their adversity, and they kept on winning.
“It’s hard to get that depth when you’re not spending salary cap. I think there is ourselves, Salford next year and maybe Wakefield that aren’t, and we still won’t be doing next year because we can’t generate the income to spend to the cap, so it doesn’t give us a chance to get there.
“It’s an uneven playing field, but that’s not going to help us. We just have to keep working hard to improve the players that we have and keep improving every year.
“We need a little bit of luck with injuries, a couple of players to progress in pre-season and I need to find a couple of players to bolster our squad. That’s why I’ve not gone on holiday!”
Tom Armstrong (Leigh Centurions)
Paddy Flynn (Released)
Setaimata Sa (Released)
Almer Salvilla (Leaving Rugby League)
2017 SQUAD: 1 Rhys Hanbury, 2 Corey Thompson, 3 Chris Bridge, 4 Charly Runciman, 5 Patrick Ah Van, 6 Kevin Brown, 7 Joe Mellor, 8 Eamon O’Carroll, 9 Lloyd White, 10 Jack Buchanan, 11 Chris Houston, 12 Matt Whitley, 13 Hep Cahill, 14 Chris Dean, 15 Gil Dudson, 16 Alex Gerrard, 17 Stefan Marsh, 18 Greg Burke, 19 MacGraff Leuluai, 20 Manase Manuokafoa, 21 Tom Gilmore, 22 Ted Chapelhow, 23 Jay Chapelhow, 24 Sam Brooks, 26 Tom Armstrong, 27 Ed Chamberlain, 28 Ryan Ince, 29 Brad Walker, 30 Olly Ashall, 31 Jordan Johnstone, 32 Danny Craven, 33 Aaron Heremaia.
December 27 – Warrington Wolves (H)
January 15 – Halifax (H)
January 22 – St Helens (A)