Conor Fitzsimmons has experienced the highs and lows of being a professional rugby league player, but now he has his sights set on reaching Super League with York Knights.

Conor Fitzsimmons

“The club are doing a lot of things right off the field, and I think by having Hendo here on a long-term contract, the Knights have the stability to go on and be successful on the pitch.”


HE SAW it when playing against them, he felt it when he first had conversations about signing, and he’s experienced it since joining.

York have long been talked about as a Super League club in waiting, and their versatile forward Conor Fitzsimmons fully agrees with that view.

While the 25-year-old acknowledges there is still plenty of work to be done and there are hurdles yet to be cleared, he firmly believes they will get there.

And based on the first nine months of a current two-year contract, Fitzsimmons says that he’d like to still be around if and when they do.

Should that scenario play out, the Cumbrian’s career would go full circle after starting in Super League at Castleford, then playing in the lower sections with Newcastle and hometown Workington before becoming York coach Andrew Henderson’s first signing in October of last year.

Fitzsimmons has tasted both highs (such as a top-flight debut with the Tigers against St Helens as a 17-year-old in 2016, reaching the League One play-off final with Thunder in 2019 and winning promotion to the Championship with Town in 2021) and disappointments (including leaving Castleford at the end of the 2017 campaign and Workington’s relegation back to the third tier last season).

He retains a fondness for all his former clubs, and while focused on the present and future, believes his varied journey and both rugby league and life experiences have made him a more rounded player – and person.

Fitzsimmons was just 16 and playing for Cumbria Storm, the old regional academy, when Castleford offered him a trial.

He was signed soon after turning 17, moved from Workington to West Yorkshire, and captained the Tigers’ Under 19 team before making his first-team bow.

“It was a big thing for me moving away on my own, but the club and all the people I got to know in Castleford were great, and because it’s not that big a place, it felt a bit like being at home,” he explains.

“I enjoyed my time there, it was good to learn from all the coaches and experienced players and playing two Super League games – both were against St Helens – was great.

“The season after, I was loaned to Workington, who were in League One, with the aim of getting some regular games and first-team experience and then going back to Castleford, but some things don’t work out, and I ended up moving on.

“I had two enjoyable seasons up at Newcastle. They are another good club with a lot of potential and based in a great city, and it’s a shame they seem to have lost their way a bit.

“Going full-time didn’t work out for whatever reason, but hopefully they can regroup and get back on an upward path.

“Workington seem to have done that after some yo-yo years when I was back there.

“The first was hit by Covid, the second we came up from League One through the play-offs, and last season, there were well-documented financial issues, which had an impact on every part of the club.

“It was tough, but Workington is my home town, I’ll always have a soft spot for the club, and I really took a lot from playing under Chris Thorman, who of course moved to Newcastle for this season.”

James Ford was coach when Fitzsimmons first talked to York and their chairman Clint Goodchild – who has been working towards meeting as many as possible of the IMG club-grading criteria due to take effect from 2025 – having been impressed with the club when playing against them.

Ford’s departure to become assistant to Mark Applegarth at Wakefield (he is now director of rugby at Featherstone) didn’t take away from the appeal of joining the go-ahead outfit, who having settled in at the LNER Stadium, opened in 2021, were undergoing a rebrand, with the men’s team becoming the Knights (the City part of the title was dropped), and the women’s the Valkyrie.

While the Valkyrie are going strong in Super League under Lindsay Anfield, Henderson’s Knights have enjoyed an upturn after an inconsistent start to the season.

“He’s a great coach to work under, experienced, articulate and methodical,” says Fitzsimmons, who shares accommodation in the city with teammates Bailey Antrobus, the Australian-born Wales centre or second row, and Ireland prop Ronan Michael.

“And (assistant) Ged Corcoran has been excellent as well. He has been around the Championship for years as right-hand man to Mark Aston at Sheffield, and he also has the knowledge gained from leading Ireland at the World Cup.

“Ged keep things plain and simple, if you do something well, he tells you, but he doesn’t hold back if you do something wrong, although the criticism is constructive.

“It took us a while to get going, but I think that was partly down to not having the whole squad together in pre-season, having a lot of injuries during the opening stages, which stopped the continuity all sides need, and simply getting to grips with the things Hendo and Ged want us to do.

“We certainly haven’t given up on getting to the play-offs this year, but however the season pans out, I think the platform has been laid for us to push on.

“The club are doing a lot of things right off the field, and I think by having Hendo here on a long-term contract, the Knights have the stability to go on and be successful on the pitch.

“No one is getting carried away or getting lofty ideas, we know it’s about putting in the hard work day in, day out and progressing in a sustainable way.

“But all the ingredients are there, and I want to be around and play my part for a good while yet.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)

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