Talking Rugby League

League Express editor MARTYN SADLER discusses some of the current issues in Rugby League. This is taken from his ‘Talking Rugby League’ column in this week’s League Express.

RFL’s Restrictive Practices

I sometimes feel extremely dubious about the future of Rugby League.

And last Friday was one of those days.

It was the day the RFL announced that it would recognise ten elite Academies for the six-year period from 2022 to 2027, including seven in the game’s heartlands, two in what the RFL defines as ‘emerging affinity areas’, and one in France.

That means that eight Super League clubs, including the Catalans Dragons, will be licensed to run elite Academy teams, while London Broncos and Newcastle Thunder will also have that privilege.

But it means that four Super League clubs – Castleford Tigers, Hull Kingston Rovres, Leigh Centurions and Salford Red Devils – will not be recognised and neither will Bradford Bulls.

Several of the clubs that have been left out have objected strongly, while Hull Kingston Rovers have threatened to seek a judicial review of the process whereby the decision has been made.

And I don’t blame them.

Surely we should be encouraging all Super League clubs and a significant number of Championship clubs to run Academies as well as teams at reserve grade.

Dave Rotheram, the RFL’s On-Field Director suggests that “an Academy is about producing high quality Super League players.

He also points out that there are around 350 full-time professional Rugby League players in this country with the twelve Super League clubs. Roughly 30 players each year would expect to come into Super League from the Academy system, which is a fairly low proportion of the actual number of young people who play Academy Rugby League.

Unfortunately the RFL has not published the detailed rationale that led to its decision on which clubs should be recognised, but in an online discussion with Dave Rotheram on Friday, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend, it seems that one of the major factors taken into consideration was the number of Super League players each club has produced from its Academy since 2016.

The reasoning seems to be that if a club hasn’t produced a significant number of starlets in that time, then it is safe to cut them off.

Unfortunately that seems flawed reasoning to me.

A club like Bradford Bulls over the years has produced an extraordinary number of players through their Academy who have graced the game. Just think of John Bateeman, Elliot Whitehead, Jake Trueman andJames Bentley, to name but four current stars of the game.

To recite the names of those players is to recognise the potential of an Academy team that will now be lost. The young Rugby League players of Bradford will not now be able to dream of a pathway to glory going through their local club.

It will mean more and more talent gravitating to a smaller number of clubs.

And given that those teams at the top of the pile are there largely because of the players who come through their Academies, how will the RFL’s decision ever lead to a levelling up of other clubs?

What the RFL should surely be doing is encouraging more young people to play the game.

One of the responsibilities of any Super League club should be to take at least ten community clubs under its wing and to gather the most talented players from that source into its Academy system.

And, given the way in which the RFL has put a lid on the number of clubs that can run Academies, I wonder whether it will undertake a similar analysis of the way clubs recruit players from overseas. I would love to see the result of such an investigation.

I’m not sure whether there is an appeal process against this decision, but if there isn’t, there certainly should be.


Getting rid of thuggery

“Thuggery is out and skill is in,” was the headline in The Australian newspaper a couple of days ago, headlining a report of the New Zealand Warriors’ victory over Wests Tigers.

Although the NRL clampdown on high tackles, with players making contact with the head being put on report and usually sinbinned, has not met with universal acclaim, Warriors coach Nathan Brown is supportive of what the NRL is doing.

Brown believes the clampdown on foul play is allowing the likes of his teenage superstar Reece Walsh to express himself on the field without having to fear having his head knocked off.

Walsh, who is 18 years old, was outstanding against the Tigers, scoring one try and setting up three others in their 30-26 win at Central Coast Stadium.

“When the ‘horseman’ (ARLC chairman Peter V’landys) changed all the rules, what he’s done is enabled these little players to get into the game and actually play footy and not get hit in the back late like what was happening for ten years,” Brown said.

“(We don’t have) people getting their heads torn off and people diving at people’s knees. We’ve got these kids who can play footy. Your heart’s in your mouth sometimes, but you’ve just got to let them go.”

Part of the NRL’s rationale for its focus on high tackles is the need to persuade parents that the game is safe enough to play for young kids as well as a concern for the health of players who play professionally, with the fear that multiple concussions can lead to brain damage that causes dementia in later life.

In the modern world, no sport can afford to have players suffering serious head injuries in its shop window.


Kelly revives Broncos’ hopes

Still on the NRL, how good was it to see Albert Kelly’s outstanding performance for Brisbane Broncos as they inflicted a shock 34-16 defeat on Sydney Roosters at the Sydney Cricket Ground last Saturday.

Albert, who is a cousin of Greg Inglis, hadn’t played in the NRL since 2014, having spent two seasons with Hull KR and four with Hull FC since then.

So there were plenty of pundits who thought that Brisbane coach Kevin Walters was mad to select him on Saturday.

But Kelly blew his critics away, putting in a five-star performance with three try-assists and a crucial 40-20, while being awarded three Dally M points.

It was a remarkable return to the NRL by any standards.


Castleford’s woes

Finally this week, I have to ask what’s going wrong at Castleford?

They will be losing Daryl Powell at the end of the year and they have already lost their Director of Rugby Jon Wells.

Their leading players are being constantly linked with other clubs.

Their dreams of having a new stadium seem to have turned to dust, although the club seems reluctant to say anything about this in public.

Their women’s team was hit at the start of the season by several of their leading stars decamping to the York City Knights.

And now the RFL has turned down the Tigers’ application for an Elite Academy licence.

I think it’s fair to say that Castleford are many people’s second favourite club, after their own club, but we need to hear something from the club on where it’s heading in the future.