One of the loudest messages this pre-season – and there were plenty – came from Widnes Vikings.
Yes, 2017 was tough. And yes, the club did came perilously close to relegation from the Championship. But those tough times would stand the club in great shape for a better 2018.
Vikings coach Denis Betts and chief executive James Rule certainly weren’t shy in beating the drum about that. A campaign which saw Widnes use well over 40 players, blood some promising youngsters and survive by the skin of their teeth was a learning curve – but as Betts himself as pointed out, it was probably the only year of his tenure to date where they took a step back.
Widnes certainly talked the talk in regards to laying out some legitimate reasons as to why fans could be cautiously optimistic for happier times in 2018. But sport, as we all know, is about walking the walk. And while we’re only two rounds in, the signs are there to suggest there are reasons to be cheerful in Widnes once again.
Will the Vikings make the top four in 2018? Probably not. Will they even make the top eight? That’s in the balance.
But those tough times last year saw the Vikings blood young players such as Danny Walker, the young hooker whose reputation swells every time he steps out on the field. Many more followed; Ryan Ince, Jordan Johnstone, Jay Chapelhow. The list goes on and on.
Last weekend, the Vikings were dealt a blow on the eve of their trip to Castleford when both hookers – Lloyd White and Aaron Heremaia – pulled out. Last year, that would have been a major problem – but this year, Widnes had Walker to fall back on. He was one of the best players on the field.
That’s just one example of how Widnes are better prepared to deal with this season as opposed to last. Before long, talents like Walker will join other homegrown products like Matt Whitley in becoming mainstays of their side.
And that takes us to tonight.
2017 was a rough old year in more ways than one, but Widnes’ ground should be rocking tonight. A great win on the opening weekend against Catalans quickly laid the demons of last season to bed – and they should feel proud in how far they pushed Castleford last Sunday.
But tonight, things jump up a notch or two. Local rivals Warrington are in town – and the Vikings are in the in-form side of the two. Not only are there local bragging rights at stake, but there is the opportunity to pile the misery on the Wolves.
Will Widnes take the opportunity? Time will tell – but even if they don’t, the signs are there to suggest all the turbulence of 2017 has indeed set the foundations for a brighter future in Cheshire.