|The Licensing process in trouble?|
Just a week after one of the most incredible victories in recent times, Widnes were given a Rugby League lesson by a good Hull side, losing 58-10. This clearly isn't good enough and most fans are very unhappy with the way things are going. Following the game on Twitter, the result created a fair amount of comment from fans of other clubs as well.
Many of the comments were harmless banter, as you'd expect from our rivals, but a number of comments focussed on the way in which we were promoted; Widnes were the first club promoted under the current licensing arrangements. This system promotes clubs based largely on a number of off-the-field criteria and controversially Widnes were promoted despite finishing in a lowly fifth place in last year's Championship.
Our continued poor performances in Super League have led many to not only question our inclusion but also the whole licensing process. Andy Wilson did so a few weeks back on Super League Back Chat but today BBC's George Riley tweeted this,
V worrying for Widnes and the licensing system. 58-0 down to Hull FC #rugbyleague
Are Widnes undermining the Licensing system?
Nobody denies that Widnes have under performed on the pitch so far this season. Despite the victory against Wigan, we have failed to compete in almost all the other games this year. After 7 rounds, only Workington in 1996 had a worse points difference at this stage. It is looking distinctly likely that Widnes are going to finish bottom this year and probably by some distance. However, before this can be blamed on the licensing system you have to examine the situation pre-licensing. Widnes were promoted in 2001 and finished an excellent 7th that year. Here is the record of teams that were promoted after that year:
2003 - Huddersfield. 10th out of 12 with 11 wins.
2004 - Salford. 9th out of 12 with 8 wins.
2005 - Leigh. 12th out of 12 with 2 wins.
2006 - Catalans. 12th out of 12 with 8 wins.
2007 - Hull KR. 11th out of 12 with 8 wins.
2008 - Castleford. 12th out of 12 with 7 wins.
2009 - Salford. 13th out of 14 with 7 wins.
2009 - Crusaders. 14th out of 14 with 3 wins.
As you can see, it is a very mixed bag. If you look closer, there is a correlation between teams doing better when they had been relegated the year previous. They used the year as a year of consolidation and often retained a nucleus of the Super League squad. Looking at the teams in bold, they are the clubs that were new to Super League and as you can see many struggled. However, nobody claimed that the promotion and relegation system was under threat when Leigh finished with just 2 victories in 2005.
The closest comparison to Widnes was the promotion of Catalan Dragons in 2006. Although Salford and Crusaders were promoted through a licensing system, they also finished 1st and 2nd that year, making their promotion closer to the example of P & R. Catalans however, were promoted based on off-field criteria and came from the lower standard French leagues. They did surprisingly well and as we all know, finished 3rd just 2 years later.
Widnes are doing badly not because of the licensing system but because of bad coaching and bad recruitment. All clubs that are promoted have to recruit a large number of new players, there is no reason to assume that Featherstone would have recruited better. It is of course ideal if you have a strong nucleus of players and this is a problem that we should have addressed last year; licensing certainly gave us the time to do so. However, Leigh also did poorly in 2002, regardless of their strong nucleus. A higher quality coach with higher quality recruitment would have seen a more competitive side on the pitch this year.
A misunderstanding of the licensing system
Even though we have had this system for 4 years, some people still fail to understand the aims of the licensing system; which is to create as many strong clubs as possible. This is why so much is focussed on off-the-field matters. Successful teams are temporary but successful clubs are not. It's no coincidence that the strongest Super League teams tend to correlate most often with the strongest Super League clubs such as Leeds, Wigan, Warrington and St Helens. These clubs get the most supporters through the gates; have the best youth programmes; make the most money and promote the image of Rugby League the best.
Without licensing, Featherstone would most likely have been promoted instead of Widnes. Without disrespecting that club; as they are well ran, they currently do not have the facilities, finance or attendances to sustain that success at Super League level. Whilst they would have likely had a better crack of it this year than Widnes have, the real test is whether or not they would have been a more successful Super League club after 3 years. Featherstone accepted that they were not ready to attempt this and as such were not involved in the process.
As many fans pointed out on Twitter, the test will be whether or not we are still losing this way in 3 years time. If we have improved considerably and are getting good attendances then the decision will have been vindicated and Super League will be stronger for it. A strong Widnes will be stronger than any other current Championship club. I would like it if we were competing better and I believe that there are steps we should be taking to address it now, but to suggest that our poor performances are a reflection on the licensing process is flawed reasoning.
In 3 years time, we will have no excuses if we are still off the pace, we will very probably be replaced by another club. Then maybe, the decision to promote Widnes can be adequately assessed. However, it would take numerous clubs being promoted before licensing itself could be blamed. Currently, it appears far more likely that Widnes have recruited poorly in the same way Leigh did, rather than being indicative of the whole process.