In Halifax, ‘two lads with a bag of rugby balls’ are pioneering a new approach to preparing players for life in and beyond the game.
In a time where dwindling participation levels and fears for the development of young players continue to blur the sport’s long-term vision, there are also signs of a revolution getting ready to take place. The foundations of this movement aren’t difficult to locate, either. In fact, it’s taking place in one of the core areas of the sport’s heartland – Halifax.
Rugby League World made the trip to the West Yorkshire town to visit two brothers, Lee and Gareth Greenwood, who are most commonly known in Rugby League circles firstly for their playing days, but more recently their coaching roles at Gloucestershire All Golds and leading amateur club, Siddal.
But by day they are the driving force behind Halifax Elite Rugby Academy, a scheme that offers aspiring teenagers between the age of 16 to 19 the chance to enhance their Rugby League careers whilst also providing them with further education after their GCSEs.
Around 45 aspiring rugby players are currently on the scheme that sees them mix near full-time training with education and skills required in later life. In essence, it attempts to provide aspiring stars of the sport’s future a platform to earn a professional contract, while making sure they have the necessary qualifications for those who require alternative employment.
“We always tell them that the rugby and the education are equally important,” Gareth said.
“What we want to do is offer lads who are coming out of a scholarship who didn’t get re-signed and even more so those who weren’t even on the radar when they were younger an opportunity to develop their rugby skills while also earning qualifications in case they can’t have a career in rugby.
“The end goal for a lot of the lads is to get a Super League contract, but for us, it’s about developing them as both players and as people, and getting them ready for life whether in or out of rugby. If they remain in the game, then that’s fantastic for us and if they get a contract, even better.”
What’s different about this Academy is that it is not categorised under the Rugby Football League’s guidelines. While several clubs have a ‘Category 3’ academy due to their link with a college, Halifax ERA is entirely independent as it allows them to send their stars of the future to any professional organisation they like, rather than being committed to one club.
Simon Bell, the head of youth at Leeds Rhinos, is one person who goes down to help and assess some of the talent involved in the scheme.
“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “Both Gareth and Lee do a very good job. They are providing these kids with another opportunity to develop and a chance to fulfil their dreams. In some cases, it may be their final opportunity to catch the eye of Super League clubs and fulfil their ambitions.
“But they do all that while providing them with an education. It is very professionally run and is comparable to some of the top academies in this country, and as a result, they are producing talent that could very well end up turning into Super League standard.”
Bell has already identified a number of players he believes have the potential to make it at a professional level. In fact, many of the students associated with the school have already been signed by the Rhinos to their academy. Altogether the Halifax ERA alumni features countless players that have now been signed by professional clubs, and it promises to grow further.
One of them is Tyler Dupree, who recently signed with Leeds after a successful trial. He joined after being let go by Salford following the disbandment of their academy, which left him thinking his chance of becoming professional had gone.
“I was considering going to sixth form, but the classroom lifestyle wasn’t really for me,” he said.
“But this way I can be around the lads in a bit more of a relaxed environment and develop both my rugby and my education. We still have deadlines and stuff like that, but we get to mix it with going in the gym and working on our rugby.
“We’ve had it drilled into us from the start we can’t just think about rugby. It’s getting us ready for life.
“When I went to Leeds I was preparing for it to be so much harder than it was at Halifax, but when I went there I can honestly say it wasn’t, it was the exact same in terms of intensity and so on.
“I want to go into primary teaching and I thought this would be a better way to get to university for me.
“They’ve given me that belief back now that I can do it and there is an opportunity. I count myself lucky to be coming through at a time when this has come along.”
Dakota Whylie is another player that has been signed by Leeds Rhinos.
“They get you into a mindset where you are ready for the life of being in an academy and the standards that you have to be ready to reach to be successful in the sport.
“I came to Gaz and Lee from college in September and now I’m contracted. I’m so glad I came here. I really hope to carry on playing here, get a contract at Leeds in the first-team and go from there, but if I do then it’s down to this.”
Our visit to the Academy came on an open day for the next batch of teenagers looking to be accepted.
Among the coaches who helped put the youngsters through their paces was Adrian Morley, the legendary former Great Britain forward who now works in youth development with Leeds.
“I think there will be professional players currently in the game that wish this was around when they were at this age.
“The amount of times you ask a player what they want to do after playing and they say they aren’t sure is really scary. Over the years the amount who have retired and had no job prospects after rugby is far too high.
“But this is a fantastic way to ensure that everyone is prepared for life after rugby, at whatever time in their life that may be. I think that is the fundamental strength of this.
“But what it also does is provide some lads who might not have quite been ready to play at academy level at 15 or 16 the chance to stay in a good environment, enhance their skills and promote themselves in front of Super League clubs again, because more and more clubs will be coming here looking at talent.
“I really think this will be the envy of so many stars of the past and I think the onus now is on clubs to see how they can learn from it in their pathways.”
The Academy, who welcome guest coaches such as Huddersfield Giants’ Kruise Leeming down to assist, is now looking to the future.
Just recently they came to an agreement with Loughborough University, which will allow their top performers on both fronts the opportunity to continue their involvement with the academy from a training standpoint while completing a degree.
“The plan for the future is for the number of players to go down as the standard goes up,” Gareth said. “It will allow us to get to a higher level standard of academy. We started with 45 students this year, but next year we’ll start with 30 and then go down to 10 or 15 a year focusing on people who are really ready for this sort of environment.
“When we talk about growth, we’re talking about an improvement in performance levels. For the lads we want to keep opening up doors to the professional game never opened to them before while getting educated. It’s more about creating a pathway and a conveyor belt of talent for us. We’ll see where it takes us, we feel like we can become stronger and maybe we can raise a question for the RFL.
“There’s a lot of doom and gloom, but if two lads with a bag of rugby balls can get some of these kids into the professional game, it might raise questions about where we take our pathways as a sport.”
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