At the edge – Rugby league’s Cumbrian outposts

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Derwent Park, home of Workington Town

IT IS 20 years since Cumbria was represented in the top flight of British rugby league and even longer since a team from the county was competing for major honours.
Workington Town’s brief dalliance with Super League ended after just one season, with the founder members of the competition finishing bottom of the pile with just two wins from 22 games and drowning in debt.
They have scarcely looked like returning since and their struggles in the first year of summer rugby is always used to counter arguments of a Cumbrian representative being placed in Super League should any further expansion take place.
Given how much of a hotbed for rugby league Cumbria is at amateur level, it perhaps seems strange that a team from this outpost of the 13-man game has failed to establish itself as perennial competitors at professional level.
This can, perhaps, be put down to the underlying issues of post-industrial economic uncertainty in the towns which support these teams, difficulties of tempting players to move to these relatively isolated areas – despite the incredibly picturesque landscape of the Lake District – and poor transportation links.
Nevertheless, rugby league has thrived in these northern outposts and the Cumberland League has been part of the sport since joining the Northern Union in 1898.
Although the Cumbrian clubs spent the first three years following the great schism from the Rugby Football Union on the outside looking in, it was two players from the county whose situation contributed to the split.
Frank Foster and George Boak were lured to Huddersfield from Cummersdale Hornets on the promise of being granted employment in the area and receiving broken time payments for playing for the team.
A grievance arising from the suspension of several players at Maryport led to them, Millom, Workington, Wath Brow and Brookland Rovers all switching to the Northern Union in 1898, with Whitehaven, Whitehaven Recreation and Seaton following prior to the start of the season.
But while the amateur game went from strength to strength in the county, the professional game did not arrive until 1945 when Workington Town were accepted into the Rugby League Championship.
Of course, Barrow had been around since 1875 and joined the Northern Union in 1897. Yet the town of Barrow-in-Furness was traditionally part of Lancashire – some locals will tell you it still is, really – and it was only in 1974 that the boundaries were redrawn to include it as part of Cumbria.
Having finished 14th in their first season, Workington quickly ascended to the highest echelons of the sport under the stewardship of player-coach Gus Risman, who joined in 1946 and five years later guided them to victory over Warrington in the Championship final at Maine Road.

Challenge Cup glory followed in 1952, with Workington defeating Featherstone Rovers 18-10 at Wembley in the first televised final, and a further appearance came three years later where they were beaten 21-12 by Barrow.
But that glory proved fleeting and, as noted in the Border Television documentary from the late 1970s, Workington’s decline mirrored that of the steel and mining industry in the area.
‘Town…Town’ painted a very grim picture of the period for both the club and townspeople, with narrator Eric Robson’s words veering between condescension and outright sneering at the sport and its supporters.
“For them,” intoned Robson “the perversion of the game the rest of the country sees is a glossy heresy – a mere extension of television show business which rests not on skill or muscle, but the jokey mateyness of ‘up ‘n’ unders’ and ‘early baths’.”
Quite. Yet it remains worth watching for anyone interested in the social history of rugby league, particularly with regards to following the scouting exploits of Cup final heroes Andy Key and Ike Southward, or scrum-half Arnold ‘Boxer’ Walker in his day-job at the Windscale nuclear power plant.
That era did proved some brief highlights for Town, beating Wigan to win the 1977 Lancashire Cup and finishing runners-up on three other occasions, but there was little else to celebrate.
Walker has the unique distinction of being revered by fans of both Workington and bitter rivals Whitehaven, who joined the Championship three years after Town but struggled to match their early success.
The Marras did enjoy a spell in the top division in the 1980s, but the past 25 years have seen them survive two periods of financial uncertainty.
Fortunately, they were able to overcome the problems in 1992 and then again eight years later, when a merger with Workington was avoided after seeming like the only option for survival.
These days, both Workington and Whitehaven find themselves in the Kingston Press Championship, with Barrow Raiders being the third Cumbrian representatives in the professional ranks in League One.

Barrow Lancashire Cup

Barrow hold aloft the Lancashire Cup in 1983

Since the town came under the auspices of Cumbria, Barrow have won the 1983 Lancashire Cup and in 2009 triumphed in the Championship Grand Final with a 26-18 win over Halifax.
However, the franchise license system Super League was operating at the time meant they were not eligible for promotion to the highest level and the departure of head coach Steve McCormack was followed by a disastrous period.
Great Britain legend Garry Schofield was fired after five games in charge, with replacement Nigel Wright being sacked before the end of the season and the club then having all of their points deducted from the 2011 campaign after being found guilty of salary cap breaches.
While professional rugby league in Cumbria has traditionally been played in these costal enclaves, there have been periods when a team representing Carlisle has been involved too.
Carlisle City, based at Harraby Greyhound Stadium, lasted just 10 games of the 1928-29 season having won one, lost nine, scored just 59 points and conceded 166, with the pro game not returning to the city until 1981.
Originally founded by football team Carlisle United and playing at their Brunton Park ground, the club gained promotion in their first season with attendances averaging 2,950.
It would not last though. Attendances plummeted as Carlisle struggled in the Championship, finishing bottom with just two points and eventually moving to Gillford Park in 1988 after not being able to afford the rent at Brunton Park.
The team merged Barrow to form Barrow Border Raiders in 1997, with any reference to the former Carlisle outfit being lost when the ‘Border’ was dropped from the club’s name in 2002.
All four of the county’s clubs had originally been set to merge to form a Cumbria team based in Workington when Super League was formed, and there is an argument to say those pooled resources could have led to an established top flight presence in the area.
However, doing so would have stripped Cumbrian rugby league of much of its unique character, while the 7,000-plus crowds at the two World Cup games staged at Derwent Park in 2013 show the support there is for the sport in the area.
The Cumbria Regional Academy ensures there is still a pathway into the professional game for players from the county, although even this is managed by Super League side Widnes Vikings.
Maybe one day though, one of the current clubs will find their way back to the highest level to give a greater profile to an area with a rich heritage in the sport.

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