Challenge Cup: Resurgent Widnes Vikings one step from Wembley

By Phil CartwrightBBC Sport
Widnes Vikings celebrate a victory
Widnes have not appeared in a Challenge Cup final since 1993
Tetley's Challenge Cup semi-final
Venue: Leigh Sports Village; Date: Sunday, 10 August Kick-off: 15:00 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Two, BBC local radio and BBC Sport website

Two years ago on Sunday, Widnes trooped off at Headingley having been thrashed 68-24 by Leeds.

But, as the 2014 season draws to a climax, Super League's former whipping boys are not only pushing for a play-off place but are one win away from a Wembley final.

Castleford Tigers stand in their way in Sunday's Challenge Cup semi-final but memories of a difficult re-introduction to the top division back in 2012 remain fresh for many of their players.

"I don't like thinking about that first season too much," joked captain Jon Clarke, who left Warrington to join Widnes ahead of that campaign.

Wembley swansong appeals to Clarke

The rare moments of hope were enveloped by heavy defeat after heavy defeat. Head coach Denis Betts was frequently forced to defend his club's position in the top flight, and often the licensing system that had presented them with a coveted Super League spot.

Widnes finished bottom of the table in 2012, winning just six of their 27 league matches. But, at the club at least, the belief that they could eventually be a success never waivered.

"We've always had a confidence within the team that we knew where we were going," Clarke told BBC Sport. "We knew it wouldn't happen overnight but we would get there in time."

Widnes, who were relegated from Super League in 2005, were re-admitted ahead of the 2012 season.

They were the last recipients of a three-year licence, with the licensing system abolished in favour of a return to promotion and relegation and the introduction of a new divisional structure from 2015 onwards.

New Super League structure - the key changes
Super League's top eight will split after 23 games (including Magic Weekend) into a seven-game group and the top four will contest the play-offs in a semi-final format.
The middle tier of eight qualifiers - comprising the bottom four from Super League and top four from the Championship - will play seven games, with the top three and 4th v 5th play-off winners going up.
League One - formerly Championship One - will grow to 14 teams, with Coventry Bears entering the competition from 2015 and the end-of-the-2014-season bottom five in the Championship dropping down.
Bonus points, currently used in the bottom two divisions, will be considered for use in Super League between now and the start of the season.
Top eight SL clubs go into the Challenge Cup sixth round, bottom four SL clubs into the fifth, Championship clubs in round four, League One clubs in round three.

"Some people liked the system, some people didn't," said chief executive James Rule, who joined the Vikings in September 2012.

"We are certainly the perfect example of how, given time and given the right level of investment in all areas - not just the squad, but community projects, facilities and academy structures - there's no excuse for not getting your house in order.

"The structure's changing now and we embrace the new structure and a new chapter for the sport.

"There's been a lot of investment and a lot of hard work that's taken place to get us to the point where we are now and there's still a huge amount of improvement in all areas still to be realised."

Denis Betts
Denis Betts was appointed as head coach of Widnes Vikings in November 2010

Whether a supporter or opponent of licensing, rugby league observers would have to concede that Widnes have done exactly what it was designed for and made it work for them.

The infrastructure for what could become a successful Super League club was in place for their return - an all-seater stadium, financial input from a wealthy backer in Steve O'Connor (who has since stepped down as chairman but remains on the board of directors), a loyal fan base and a plan to develop strong links with the local community.

Their progression since returning has been gradual and impressive.

Widnes' recent Super League record
2012P27, W6, D0, L2114th
2013P27, W10, D2, L1510th
2014 (after 23 games)P23, W11, D1, L118th

"We didn't really set a timescale on how quickly it was going to happen or where we would end up," said Betts, a member of the all-conquering Wigan team of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"We didn't set any kind of ceiling on what we could achieve.

"We started off at a very strong point because we couldn't go backwards - there was no relegation.

"That first year, we knew where we stood. The year after, we had to get better, and this year we had to get better again. Those are our building blocks. There's one thing we talk about and that's not going backwards."

Brown expecting semi-final nerves

Widnes built on a 10th-place finish in 2013 and lie in the eighth and final play-off spot with four matches of the 2014 season remaining, a three-point gap separating the Vikings from their nearest rivals.

Clarke added: "To be sitting quite comfortably in the top eight and be in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup in our third season - I'm not sure how many rugby league pundits would have predicted that."

A number of high-profile signings have added some much-needed quality to the first-team squad, which has been supplemented by the steady stream of academy graduates breaking into the senior side.

"When I came, a few people thought I was crazy," says stand-off Kevin Brown, whose move from Huddersfield was announced on the same day Widnes were being hammered 68-4 by Warrington at the 2012 Magic Weekend.

"They asked 'why are you going there when you're the captain of a contending side?'

"I spoke to Steve and Denis and they told me their plans. They weren't going to rush into anything; they were going to do it step by step.

"They've followed that plan meticulously and where we are now is a great pat on the back for them."

Wigan celebrate winning the Challenge Cup in 1993
Denis Betts (front right) was part of the Wigan side that defeated Widnes in the 1993 final at Wembley

And so to Sunday, and the prospect of reaching a first Challenge Cup final for 21 years.

Widnes were once dubbed "The Cup Kings", such was their dominance in knockout competitions. Between 1975 and 1984, they won the Challenge Cup four times and were runners-up on a further three occasions.

The Joe Lydon-inspired success of 1984 remains the last time they lifted the famous trophy, while Betts was in the Wigan side that defeated Widnes when they last made the trip to Wembley back in 1993.

Lydon leads Widnes to 1984 Challenge Cup

Hooker Clarke was in the Warrington side that won the competition in 2010 and, as he contemplates his final weeks as a professional before retiring, he sees a Wembley swansong as the perfect way to bow out.

"I'm going to enjoy this weekend because Challenge Cup semi-finals are special within themselves," said the 35-year-old. "Hopefully we can be on the right side of the result with a really good performance.

"I'm not thinking too far ahead, but it's always in the back of your mind. If I could get to lead this special group of lads out and represent the town at Wembley, that would be a nice way to cap off a pretty good career."