Championship Focus: Joy on the Tyne

Gareth Walker looks at Newcastle’s Championship elevation and the implications for the four left behind.

They were always the favourites in many people’s eyes and, on Thursday afternoon, Newcastle Thunder were handed a place in the Betfred Championship for 2021.

The North East club could hardly have been closer to securing that spot on the field at the end of the 2019 campaign.

Thunder threw everything at Oldham in the closing stages of their promotion clash, but couldn’t quite overhaul Jimmy Beckett’s 62nd minute try and fell to an agonising 18-14 defeat.

But it is the club’s significant work off the field that perhaps most impressed the five-person panel, which was chaired by former RFL president Air Commodore Dean Andrew OBE.

For those unaware of the process, all five clubs that applied were judged on the following criteria:

• Enhancing the commercial value of the Championship to broadcast and sponsorship partners.
• Delivering value to other members of the Championship.
• Being competitive on the field of play.
• Being sustainable for the 2021 season and beyond.
• Delivering the broader goals of the sport as set out in the RFL’s Strategy Reset document.

Thunder have publicly shared their ambition of winning Super League by 2030, have significant financial backing, excellent facilities and an outstanding recent record of junior development.

Earlier this month they explained how the region has seen a 40 per cent rise in the number of community clubs and players in the region over the last six years, which is a level of growth not replicated in even the staunchest heartlands of the sport.

That gives the club a terrific base to build on, and with former Super League coach Denis Betts heading up a backroom staff that recently added highly-rated young coach Eamon O’Carroll, they also have the off-field know-how to make a competitive step up on the field.

After the decision was announced, panel chair Andrew said: “Newcastle Thunder was the unanimous choice of the panel, for an outstanding application.

“The club’s coaching set-up and facilities are superb; its community outreach is well-established and growing.

“Newcastle and the North-East has considerable future growth potential, backed by its owner, as has already been recognised by the decision to play the Super League Magic Weekend at St James’ Park for a fifth time in 2021, and also by Rugby League World Cup 2021, with five fixtures to be played in the region including the tournament opener in Newcastle.

“The club has a clearly-stated aspiration of Super League success this decade. Overall the panel thought its application most closely matched the vision of the RFL’s Strategy Reset.”

For those interested, the governing body’s document on that can be found by searching ‘RFL Strategy Reset’ online.

Thunder Chairman Mick Hogan, a vastly experienced sports administrator steeped in Rugby League, is confident the club will continue to grow.

Hogan said: “We believe we have the solid foundations in place to continue our growth over the next few seasons.

“Our Academy and community foundation are growing the sport and our coaching structure, training facilities and stadium will help drive onfield progress.

“We now need to demonstrate the substance of our bid and its success by being really competitive on the field and continuing to grow the number of participants, supporters and sponsors.

“Our long-term mission is to win Super League by 2030 and this is a significant milestone towards that.”

But what of the four clubs – Barrow Raiders, Doncaster, Rochdale Hornets and Workington Town – who were unsuccessful in their bid?

The process should undoubtedly have helped each one.

Rugby League can often be frustratingly lacking when it comes to communicating its strengths to supporters and the wider public. But each of the quartet worked hard to do exactly that, and they will have seen the kind of benefits it brings in terms of a positive public profile.

Examining each level of their own businesses and laying down firm plans for the future will also help their long-term growth.

One other thing that was particularly noticeable about Thursday afternoon’s announcement was the manner in which each of those four unsuccessful clubs accepted the decision and congratulated Newcastle.

It can only be hoped that this week’s Super League ruling is met with the same graceful acknowledgements.

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