Danny Craven cut a disconsolate figure in the Widnes dugout following the humbling defeat at London Broncos which all but ended the Vikings chances of reaching the Championship play-offs.
Craven was the last player to leave the pitch for the dressing room despite his best efforts in a 52-12 defeat in the capital where the hosts run rampant in the final 15 minutes.
If rumours are to be believed, then Craven will be departing Widnes after 14 seasons of service at the end of the year.
He has deserved better. Breaking through as an 18-year-old full-back, he suffered a nasty shoulder injury against York in April 2011 and did well to recover to appear before the end of the year.
In the first season in Super League in 2012, he started the opening three games at full-back and probably ought to have had more than the 13 starts he was handed that season, particularly given the dearth of options Widnes had at stand-off.
From 2013 onwards, the signing of Kevin Brown meant Craven had to play second fiddle for the number six shirt, and by 2016, Denis Betts had farmed him out on loan to Featherstone for the entire year.
Since Widnes’ relegation from Super League, Craven has been a sure-fire starter when fit, and played 29 games in the troubled 2019 campaign.
This season promised an exciting re-union of Craven with Jack Owens and Tom Gilmore, back after a few years away at Halifax and Batley, but cruelly injuries have got in the way of Widnes fans seeing just how good the triumvirate could have been together in the first team – first with Gilmore injured in the season opener at York, and then Craven succumbing to injury at Batley.
In the first two games the three did manage to play in together, Widnes registered impressive wins over Halifax and Batley.
Craven’s kicking game, particularly his in-to-touch kicking, will have been a feature of many decent Widnes performances in recent years, and his most underrated attribute is his strength in defence.
His frustration has at times been evident this season, picking up four yellow cards, though it’s hard to see just where Widnes will find a capable replacement.
Another thing Craven does fly the flag for is the now lost Widnes academy set-up.
For all the difficulties of the past seven years, the main thing that the fans have had to claim proudly is the success of its academy products.
Now while Craven hails from nearby St Helens, he is very much an adopted Widnesian and he has given his rugby league career to Widnes, of course as a result of Widnes giving him the chance and opportunity to do so.
The academy is no more, and who knows just when Widnes will once again be able to produce its own players.
But if it decides to let go of those that it has produced in the meantime – the likes of Craven and also Owen Farnworth and Adam Lawton, both heavily rumoured to be leaving to pastures new – even more of the heart and soul of Widnes rugby league club is getting ripped out.
If the club can’t thrive on the pitch with local players or players it has produced, it doesn’t bode well for its chances of recruiting a team from further afield.
While some will argue that the team (ergo some of these players) have under-performed in recent seasons, there are many factors at play. Constantly changing the coach year-on-year, plus the unsettling nature of some of the other off-field appointments and lack of communication about the club’s direction haven’t helped.
Interim coach Neil Belshaw said after the defeat at London: “It (the Sheffield game) is going to be emotional for a lot of people. It’s lot of people’s last (home) game. We’ve just got to try and be professional and try and get the win to keep our season going.”
Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to just who will be leaving at the end of the season as there has been radio silence from the club, unlike Warrington, who earlier announced six confirmed departures which will enable their fans to give them appropriate send-offs at their final home game of the regular season against St Helens on Friday.
In previous years, Widnes have simply announced player exits after the season has ended, which notably resulted in some ill-feeling around Steve Tyrer last campaign.
The theory that it is done out of respect for other clubs is a cop-out – you can announce players are departing without revealing where they are going; plus Widnes have only just announced the appointment of a new coach who is currently embroiled in a relegation battle elsewhere.
There is no recent evidence to suggest that Widnes are capable of recruiting players better than Craven, Farnworth and Lawton, to name but three. The solution to possibly finishing ninth in the Championship isn’t to lose your best players – it is surely to recruit better players to go around them and provide greater depth.
We can only hope to be proved wrong.