On Sunday, Featherstone and Halifax put on a classic bout at the Big Fellas Stadium, with a last minute penalty giving Halifax a 20-19 victory over Rovers in a thrilling advertisement for the Championship.
With three minutes to play Rovers had taken the lead thanks to a stunning 40-yard drop-goal by none other than Leeds Rhinos playmaker Jordan Lilley, who in the eyes of many at that game was the best player on the field by some distance.
Lilley became the fourth Rhino to play for Rovers this year, following Ash Handley, Mitch Achurch and Jordan Baldwinson, who have all played for Featherstone due to the dual-registration ruling this year and played significant roles in their promising start to the year.
The use of dual-registration has prompted numerous debates in the past; at one point the majority of Championship clubs utilised, and perhaps abused, the ability to draft in either young Super League stars or big names returning from injury.
As time has gone on, the use of dual-registration has deteriorated, partly down to the relegation of established clubs Bradford and London, plus the rise of other clubs.
Beyond that, a number of clubs have instead opted to set up reserve teams rather than rely on dual-registration. Following their top four finish last year, Halifax have invested money into a reserve grade and promptly dropped their dual-registration relationship with Hull Kingston Rovers that saw them take two players from the Super League side in Jordan Cox and Connor Robinson, the latter of whom is now a permanent member of Fax’s squad.
Halifax head coach Richard Marshall explained the club’s decision to focus on a reserve grade: “It is there to produce players for the first grade, it’s as simple as that. It gives other players opportunities to work in a professional environment too.
“Using dual-reg can destabilise your squad. If I were to go and get dual-registered players, what does that say to my lads in the reserve grade? It basically says you aren’t good enough to play first-team and I’m going to find somebody else.
“I don’t begrudge Featherstone for using it. They have a lot of injuries and if we were in that situation again we’d have to consider getting players in on loan, thankfully we have a big enough squad to cope this year.
“But it’s a quick fix, and that’s all it is. Long term it won’t benefit the player or the club. Jordan Lilley is a Super League player, and long-term his development will stagnate if he plays in the Championship for a number of weeks.”
As Marshall alluded to, Featherstone’s squad is currently decimated with injuries, particularly in the halves with Anthony Thackeray and Kyle Briggs currently out injured. In that sense, bringing in Lilley makes sense. But like Fax, Fev also have a reserve grade, which brings a batch of players they can select from. In Halifax’s case, four players from their reserves have already played first grade this year.
There must be some concerns that a Championship club can bring in a player of Lilley’s quality; one who played in the World Club Challenge this year, so easily for one match. This was a huge game in the season for both clubs, Halifax would have fallen four points behind the top four with defeat, and there was nothing stopping Fev bringing in more of Leeds’ first-team players had the Rhinos given it the green light.
“Without him (Lilley) I don’t think Featherstone would have been in the contest because I thought he was the best player on the park really, he was fantastic,” said Marshall.
Featherstone are not the only club of course. In League One, Doncaster have had some notable players from Hull FC in their side, including Jordan Abdull and Iaefeta Paleaasina. There are other cases too.
The dual-reg system was introduced in the ‘Franchise Era’, which had a clear objective of stabilising and improving the long-term futures of clubs among many other things. Back then, dual-registration, while giving Championship club certain advantages, gave Super League clubs a platform to let their young players develop and nurture them for the first-team, rather than releasing them to save money so they could afford to spend more money on the salary cap.
But with promotion and relegation back into play, is it right that games can be so heavily influenced by players that are clearly capable of playing at the top level? The financial implications of making the top four especially are huge, there’s as much on the line for Championship clubs these days as there is for Super League clubs when it comes to action on the field.
There’s also the argument that dual-reg holds clubs back. While finances have to be taken into account, we should be encouraging clubs to develop their own players to emerge into first teams, rather than drafting in Super Leauge players that aren’t being selected. That is not only damaging to the long-term wellbeing of clubs but also the international game as we look to compete with Australia and New Zealand.
Of course, dual-reg is a saviour for many clubs that simply don’t have the resources to fund a reserve team or have the money to boost numbers in their squad, but with the jostling at the top of the league becoming more intense, the Championship will become devalued if Super League players have a heavy influence in which teams eventually make the top four, although you’d hope clubs wouldn’t abuse the ability to bring in ‘ringers’ for the big games.