Championship Focus: Cornwall make a shrewd first move

It’s fair to say that Cornwall RLFC’s admittance into Betfred League 1 was met with a certain amount of scepticism in some quarters.

This is Rugby League after all. Much of the concern that was aired publicly and privately was justified.

But in naming Neil Kelly as their inaugural coach, the fledgling club could hardly have made a more credible appointment.

Kelly is hugely respected within the sport for his work in charge of Dewsbury, twice, Widnes and Leigh.

He is a former Super League Coach of the Year in 2002, the year after he steered the Vikings into the top flight. And he worked as assistant coach for Wales at the 2000 World Cup under Clive Griffiths.

He took the Rams to Grand Final success against Leigh in 2000, when the current Leeds coach Richard Agar kicked the decisive drop-goal in a 13-12 win over Leigh in front of 8,487 at Bury’s Gigg Lane.

The following year – with Dewsbury denied a move to Super League – he moved to Widnes, where he oversaw a late-season charge for the top flight that culminated in a promotion-deciding win over Oldham at Spotland.

Kelly was then handed the top coaching award in this country for securing the Vikings’ top-flight status the year after.

The 59-year-old’s coaching experience extends well beyond that, after he moved to rugby union to work on the staff at Ulster.

With particular relevance to his new job at Cornwall, he also has a significant knowledge of working with rugby teams in areas where the sport is not the dominant game, having served as a defensive coach for both Romania and Namibia in the 15-man code.

More recently he has worked in America.

But it’s not just Kelly’s coaching CV that marks him down as a smart appointment by the southwest club.

As a personality he looks the perfect fit to talk up the strengths of Rugby League to a largely new audience. He is as passionate about the sport as he is knowledgeable.

During his time at Dewsbury and Widnes he featured regularly – and impressively – on the notorious Rugby League Raw programme, avoiding the pitfalls some of his peers encountered with his measured approach to coaching.

There was one memorable scene before a big match for the Rams where Kelly was filmed walking around the pitch engaging in small talk with an enthusiastic young ball-boy. It summed him up perfectly.

But it is ultimately on the field where he – and Cornwall – will be judged, and his considerable experience will be a huge help.

There’s unlikely to be any public grandstanding, or naivete in relation to how good the standard at this level is and the challenge his new side faces. Kelly will be fully aware of how difficult expansion clubs have found the third tier at first in recent years.

“It will be up to us to meet the challenge of all the teams we will play by doing the basics of the game right and building off that,” Kelly said in the club’s press release to announce his arrival.

“I know League 1 and if we respect the ball and do things right in games, we can get one or two surprising results.”

Kelly might be publicly cautious, but he is also sure to be ambitious, which was mirrored by the club in their first signing, former Grand Final winner and Ireland international Anthony Mullally.

That lays down an early marker that Cornwall don’t want to be also-rans.

That, however, will undoubtedly be difficult to avoid. History has shown us that repeatedly down the years.

But in Neil Kelly, the club has a respected and credible figure to steer them through what promises to be an intriguing debut campaign.

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