Super League: Widnes Vikings season preview
Vikings happy to have new boy Danny Tickle in their ranks; Play-offs look a real possibility, depending on fitness of key players...
Last Updated: 05/02/14 11:20am
Denis Betts: Will be wanting to make a concerted push for the top eight
Widnes will want to continue on an upward curve in their third season back in the top flight. Their facilities are excellent and now they will have their sights set on a place in the play-offs.
Coach: Denis Betts
Captain: Jon Clarke
Out: Gareth Hock (Salford), Ben Cross (retired), Frank Winterstein (released)
In: Paul Johnson, Danny Tickle (both Hull), Danny Galea (Canterbury Bulldogs), Liam Carberry (Wigan), Rhodri Lloyd (Wigan, on loan)
Odds to finish top: 250-1
Odds to finish in top eight: 15-2
Widnes are a team on the up after enjoying a season of progression in 2013, climbing off the foot of the table from the year before to bag a 10th-place finish. Their biggest improvement was in defence having conceded 241 fewer points.
Denis Betts' side signalled their intent with the capture of England international Gareth Hock at the start of the campaign on a season-long loan from Wigan Warriors.
The Vikings won their opener away to London Broncos, but had to wait until round five for another success when they claimed an impressive 36-16 win over Hull FC.
Widnes secured the first-half of their double over rivals Warrington in March with a 38-22 success over Tony Smith's men. In round 14 they claimed their first-ever Super League success over St Helens.
The result of their season, however, arrived on August 15. Few, if any, gave them a chance of winning away to high-flying Warrington and not only did they do it, but they did it a man light following Hep Cahill's dismissal.
Rising star Jack Owens was the star of the night for Widnes with two tries and two goals as Betts' men turned the form book on its head. The Vikings ended their campaign with a 24-4 win at Salford.
Ins and outs
Having seen improvement in 2013, the Vikings will be wanting to make an appearance in the play-offs this year. To that extent, they have once again signed a Super League player with serious pedigree.
Last winter Kevin Brown headed in from Huddersfield, soon to be joined by brother-in-law Gareth Hock. The pair made an impact when on the field, the former being hampered by injuries while the latter had his problems with the Rugby Football League's disciplinary committee.
With Hock only ever being at the club on a year-long loan deal, Widnes targeted Danny Tickle as the man to take his place in the second row. Denis Betts knows all about the goal-kicking forward from their time together at Wigan but will hope he can add more than just points off the tee.
Adding to the plethora of players with connections to the Cherry and Whites are Liam Carberry and Rhodri Lloyd, while Paul Johnson is a second former Airlie Bird who has now come to roost at the Select Security Stadium.
There has also been one addition to the coaching staff; after hanging up his boots at the end of last season, former Man of Steel Brett Hodgson will work with the outside backs and halves across all levels at the Vikings.
Danny Tickle: Will provide the Vikings with a reliable goal-kicker
The Vikings happened to score more points than the five sides directly above them - problem is they still ended up with a -146 differential. Getting across the line isn't an issue. Now they must stop opponents from doing the same.
2-Putting the boot in
No side put in fewer attacking kicks in open play, while they also missed 40 attempts at goal. Brown and Tickle - fitness permitting - should make sure both of those statistics are improved in 2014.
Widnes have the backs capable of putting points on the scoreboard - the key will be how often the pack can put them within striking distance. The absence of Hock is a blow on that front, though it also takes away a disciplinary issue.
PHIL CLARKE PREDICTS: 9th
Can they maintain their improvement over the last two years? They recorded six wins on their re-entry to Super League, and increased that to 10 last year. If they manage to get that number of wins to 13 this season they might even make the play-offs which would be like winning the league for Widnes at this stage.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Joe Mellor has been running onto the field with his right knee bandaged like Jeff Grayshon (an old prop forward from Bradford Northern). Fortunately for the fans in Widnes, he's got far more speed than old Jeff. He seems to bring a kitbag full of energy to every game and is improving nicely at a club on the up.