Despite the 2016 season still being very much in its infancy, Widnes surprisingly lead the Super League pack and after last week’s away victory over Wigan Warriors, Denis Betts’ side are fast becoming serious title contenders.
The Vikings achievements have naturally meant parallels have been drawn with Premier League football team Leicester City, who themselves have defied every critic and are on the verge of lifting the round ball games biggest domestic prize.
But just as many of football’s media wrote of Leicester’s chances, similar happenings have occurred within the world of Rugby League with one prominent TV pundit, Phil Clarke, really putting his neck on the line with a throwaway remark, but one which may just come back and bite him where it hurts in October.
Clarke was the stand-out loose forward of his generation, a natural successor to the previous incumbent of Great Britain’s number 13 jersey Ellery Hanley, a player who’s zenith was undoubtedly winning the 1988 Golden Boot, although his playing days were somewhat blighted by injury, especially at Leeds, the final British club of a glittering career.
Eyebrows were raised when Wigan cashed in on Hanley in 1991, although Maurice Lindsay, the then Wigan Chairman, knew exactly what he was doing. Monies generated were used to finance the deal to take Martin Offiah out of his Widnes exile and also, there was Clarke, a readymade successor for Hanley waiting in the wings.
Sadly Clarke never became a true legend of the game because of a serious neck injury suffered whilst playing in the old Winfield Cup for Sydney Roosters. Although he made a full recovery, doctors advised against a return to playing Rugby League.
The natural progression for those ex-pros who decide against a coaching career post retirement is to work within the media. In 1999, Clarke joined the Sky Sports Rugby League team. Similarly to many of his fellow pundits, especially Mike Stephenson, Clarke often polarises opinions, with some supporters of our great game warmly receiving his views, others simply press the mute button during televised matches.
I don’t really have a view either way as pundits are cut from the same cloth, some days you’ll agree with them, on other occasions you won’t although Clarke’s undoubted bias towards Wigan is rather contentious.
In the main though, Clarke lets ‘Stevo’ take on Sky Sports’ lead role in making big sweeping statements – who will ever forget him describing Super League and mergers as a good thing to stop Wigan winning everything – although just recently, it wasn’t the former Great Britain World Cup winning hooker that made a questionable declaration, but Clarke, who said that he would dress up as Widnes’ mascot Kemik the Viking if the rank outsiders make Super League’s Play-Offs.
Dangerous territory to jest about things like this as there was a hilarious example of dismissing the unthinkable only for it to come true back in 2012 when Kris Temple, a broadcaster for the BBC, scotched the return of former football manager Eddie Howe to his previous club AFC Bournemouth, so much so that Temple said he would commentate on a future Cherries match dressed as Elvis if Howe came back. Two weeks later and Elvis was in the building, describing the full 90 minutes of Bournemouth’s 2-1 win over Shrewsbury dressed as the King.
So will Clarke suffer a similar fate to Temple?
That’s the $50 million dollar question in Super League at the moment with Widnes’ credentials set to be firmly examined next by Warrington, the competitions other stand-out side so far. Both go head-to-head at the Halliwell Jones over Easter with Wire, and Chris Sandow chiefly, exceptional so far, but Widnes will without doubt obviously provide their biggest test thus far too.
In some respects, it’s almost a season defining game for Widnes. You just sense they are one poor defeat away from those who feel there brilliant form is just a flash in the pan smugly saying they told us so.
Granted Warrington will be incredibly tough for Betts’ team, but with Kevin Brown pulling the strings for a productive backline, anything could happen and probably will. Certainly a Vikings win would have Clarke nearing his date with fancy dress destiny, although a defeat wouldn’t be the disaster many predict it to be either.
Good teams don’t become bad ones overnight and although I will be the first to admit I thought Widnes would finish bottom of Super League’s pile in 2016, they are currently riding high on merit, no fluke whatsoever, strikingly similar to the achievements of Leicester City, who look likely to lift football’s Premier League title despite being tipped for relegation by those who supposedly know best.
The Foxes remarkable campaign has been built around the goals of Jamie Vardy and creative genius of Riyad Mahrez. In Corey Thompson and Stefan Marsh, Widnes have two players, like Vardy, who have been in sensational scoring form whilst Brown’s intelligence and game changing talents are comparable to those of African Mahrez.
Although the aforementioned players from both teams have taken all the glory, a magnificent team ethos from squads without any International superstars has been a huge factor in continued success at the King Power and Select Security Stadiums respectively. It looks likely that Leicester will do the unthinkable and providing Brown stays fit, Widnes will be there or thereabouts too, a refreshing change to see a somewhat fallen giant back at the top of Rugby League’s tree, even if Phil Clarke has staked his reputation on things turning out rather differently.