“IT’S not top eight, it’s top six, possibly top four – they are the things we are reaching for.”
Six weeks into the 2016 Super League season and Widnes Vikings head coach Denis Betts’ assessment of his squad’s strength prior to the big kick-off does not now sound like either misplaced optimism or typical pre-season bluster.
Not that the gruff-speaking former Wigan and Great Britain second row has ever come across as one for trash-talking or rampant hyperbole, but a few eyebrows must have been raised when Betts spoke of his side as being potential play-off contenders.
Admittedly, the season is still young and the showdowns against Betts’ old side – last season’s Grand Final runners-up, no less – and local rivals and fellow high-fliers Warrington Wolves that are looming on the horizon will perhaps provide more of a glimpse as to whether or not the Vikings are genuine contenders.
Certainly, last Thursday’s win over an abject Hull FC – more on them below – saw Widnes exhibit all of the facets which have taken them to the summit of Super League with five wins from six, racking up 212 points in the process.
Skipper Kevin Brown has won praise for the way he has pulled the strings for the side at stand-off and it was his kicking which caused Hull’s defence all sorts of problems in the 46-6 thrashing.
Indeed, Brown is tied with Salford Red Devils scrum-half Michael Dobson for the most attacking kicks so far this season with 35. The rest of the Opta stats provide plenty of insight into what makes the Vikings tick as well.
As far as the collective stats for the teams are concerned, Widnes have made 8,033 metres – nearly 900 more than Salford – with an average gain of 7.32 metres, which is the fourth-best in the competition too.
So we know Betts’ Widnes like to run with the ball in hand, particularly on the conducive artificial surface at the Select Security Stadium, but they are effective with it too thanks to a league-high 54 clean breaks.
Corey Thomas, Stefan Marsh, Joe Mellor and Rhys Hanbury feature in the top ten try scorers, while the ability of Brown, Charly Runciman and Hep Cahill to keep the ball alive is indicated in them all being in the top ten for offloads.
On the defensive side, Widnes have conceded just 94 points in six games – only Warrington and Wigan, who have both played one game less, have conceded fewer – and made the third-highest number of tackles in the league with 1,955, with Cahill having made 227 of those on his own.
It is testament to the work done in building this team by Betts since he led them back into Super League in 2011, having controversially missed out on one of the first sets of licenses during the franchise era.
But as Brian Noble observed in his column in this month’s Forty20 magazine: “The Vikings are a product of the old licensing system. Had they not been given the time and right to develop everything around the club…while there was no promotion or relegation, Denis Betts’ men might not be there now.”
How ironic would it be if a system which initially prevented their return to the top flight played a part in them now contending for the title?
To Hull and back: Friday night down the local saw the Armchair Pundit encounter a Hull FC-supporting friend, having been only a few short weeks since our last meeting when the Black and Whites were among the early pace-setters.
How times change, with the humbling defeat away to Widnes being their third loss in a row and resulting in the players shutting head coach Lee Radford and his staff out of the dressing room at full-time.
After a promising start, it now looks like Radford may become the next coaching casualty of the season. To borrow an over-used cliché from the round-ball game, it certainly seems as if he has ‘lost the dressing room’.
Meanwhile, life does not get any easier for the red and white half of Hull, with Kingston Rovers going down 38-6 away to previously winless Huddersfield Giants.
Not only that, but talismanic skipper Terry Campese was forced off after just 58 minutes, having only recently returned from major knee surgery after rupturing his ACL in 2015.
Thursday night attendance watch: The 4,735 who turned up to the Select Security Stadium for the encounter between Widnes and Hull was down on last season’s 5,573 who attended what was also a Thursday night game.
The Alex Murphy Award for Services to Swearing on TV: Named after the legendary half-back and coach who was once captured expressing his opinions in his usual forthright way when Dean Bell nearly took off Les Quirk’s head in the 1989 Challenge Cup final, this award recognises those always humours slips of the tongue.
So step forward Dom Manfredi, who exposed the dangers of interviewing players with the adrenaline still pumping moments after the conclusion of a game in Wigan Warriors’ 28-6 triumph over the team who beat them in last season’s Grand Final, Leeds Rhinos.
The other Friday night game saw St Helens heap more misery on Wakefield Trinity Wildcast with a 44-4 victory at Langtree Park. There is concern the departure of head coach Brian Smith, who stepped down in the week, might only be the tip of the iceberg for the beleaguered Wildcats though.
The younger Smith brother, Tony, saw Warrington continue their unbeaten start to the season on Saturday though as they saw off the misfiring Catalans Dragons 30-20 in Perpignan after coming from two points behind at the break.
And despite owner Marwan Koukash threatening “all-out war” with The RFL over allegations of salary cap breaches, Salford continued their recent good form by storming to a 32-16 victory over Castleford Tigers.
Bucking Broncos: If Widnes’ impressive start is the talk of Super League, then the resurgence of London Broncos really deserves all the headlines in the Kingston Press Championship as well.
The move to the artificial pitch at Ealing Trailfinders RUFC seems to have worked well for the Broncos, who saw off Dewsbury Rams 22-18 to go top of the Championship after six games.
Head coach Andrew Henderson has built a side which includes the experience of the likes of Jamie Thackray and Wes Naiqama, supplemented with some smart recruitment from other Championship sides, overseas and the Broncos’ own youth products.
Meanwhile, Batley Bulldogs ensured they kept up close pursuit of the Broncos thanks to a 24-24 draw at home to Bradford Bulls as Pat Walker kicked a last-minute penalty.
At the other end of the table, Swinton Lions already look up against it after suffering their sixth-straight defeat by going down 30-10 at home to Featherstone Rovers. However, Workington Town notched up their first win by beating Oldham 23-12.
It was a good weekend for their Cumbrian rivals Whitehaven too, who edged Sheffield Eagles 26-24, while Leigh Centurions rounded off a quiet week by their recent standards with a 26-18 victory at Halifax.
League One round-up: No wonder Toulouse Olympique are considered favourites for the title in their first season back in the English league system, with the reigning French Elite One champions storming past Hemel Stags 74-0.
The crisis-hit North Wales Crusaders gained some relief with a 24-20 victory away to Newcastle Thunder, while Rochdale Hornets, Doncaster, Barrow and London Skolars all triumphed too.
Amateur score of the week: Leigh Miners Rangers 24 Rochdale Mayfield 20, National Conference League Premier Division. The defending champions just had the edge over Mayfield, who recently had a Challenge Cup derby with professional side Rochdale Hornets.
Founded in 1966 by players from Astley & Tyldesley linking up with players from the disbanded junior section of Hope Rangers, Leigh Miners Rangers are one of only two teams to have played in the top division of the NCL every season since its inception.
That has not stopped new head coach Allan Coleman stating the priority for this season is making sure they avoid relegation though.