It’s more than four months since Widnes were last in action, booking their place in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup with a 32-16 win over Swinton.
Whether that absence will be prolonged will likely be revealed next week, with the RFL finally set to make a twice-delayed decision as to whether the Championship (and League 1) can resume.
An extra curve-ball has been thrown in by the announcement that the Challenge Cup will resume on August 22 – with the five lower league clubs left in the competition, which of course includes Widnes, given until the end of July to confirm their participation.
There has been frustration from some fans that Super League is due to restart on August 2 – with St Helens as favourites – and yet we have no idea on when lower league rugby might resume – but this is basic economics.
Super League need to return to satisfy its commercial and broadcast deals, which without, would have a detrimental effect on not just them, but the game as a whole, as the Sky TV money does filter its way down to lower league clubs through central funding.
My opinion is that I just cannot see a way how Widnes, or the Championship, can return behind closed doors.
The furlough scheme has undoubtedly been a huge lifeline for Championship clubs, meaning the main overheads of salaries could be covered by the government.
To bring players out of that to play games with no income, would be catastrophic.
Even just returning for one Challenge Cup game would incur significant costs – at a rough guess-timate, you would need to bring players back for 2-3 weeks training (bearing in mind they would be playing against a Super League club which would have 4-5 weeks training and 3 games under their belts by the time the cup game is played); plus the costs of testing (£5k per week), and then the costs of staging a match, even behind closed doors.
In a statement on Friday, Widnes said: “The club are now working through the process of coming to a decision on the matter, and considering whether the Vikings will be able to continue or would need to withdraw from the competition.
“This decision is a complex one, with a number of factors to consider, including the current furlough situation, the cost and implementation of testing which would be required to compete and the future of the Championship season – which is yet to be confirmed.”
Boris Johnson predicts a return for fans to stadiums in October, but this would surely be too late for any meaningful Championship season to take place.
The logical approach would be to write this season off, enable the clubs to maximise the use of the furlough scheme until the end of October, and then look at how the competition restarts in 2021 – perhaps earlier than usual.
Clubs may well want to start playing games as soon as possible to garner income; maybe they could kick-off over the festive period and play lucrative games on Boxing Day or similar.
Whatever happens, we’ve come out of the back of an extraordinary situation – if clubs remain in one piece, they need to be practical about the future.