Inside ‘Rookie Camp’, which prepares youngsters for life as a rugby league professional

When RL Cares hosted 80 of the stars of tomorrow at Rookie Camp 2024, the youngsters were left in no doubt that there’s more to life as a professional rugby league player than who dares wins…

RUGBY LEAGUE players face more than their fair share of adversity throughout their careers, from the trauma of injury and the uncertainty of selection to the insecurity of a new contract and the ever-looming prospect of retirement as thirtysomethings.  

Few, if any of them, however, will go through the experience that was shared by the keynote speaker at Rookie Camp, a day-long series of talks, presentations and workshops for players who will enter 2024 as full-time professionals. 

Eighty teenagers from Super League and Championship clubs were brought together by Rugby League Cares at Leeds Beckett University in December when they heard the harrowing story of being hunted, captured and tortured by the Taliban. 

There may not be an obvious link between the career of former SAS soldier Andy McNab and that of rugby league’s neo-pros but the best-selling author’s experience in Iraq and Syria provided a compelling case for the value of teamwork. 

McNab spoke in detail about how important teamwork and preparation was to his SAS unit, delivering a lesson which the youngsters were all very willing to learn towards the end of a rewarding day.

Now in its second year, Rookie Camp is designed to equip young players with much of the information and knowledge they need to realise their full potential in the high-pressure world of first-team rugby. 

For all of them, the start of the 2024 season will mark the beginning of an exciting chapter in their rugby league careers, a journey which began at their respective community clubs as juniors before they were signed to professional club Academies and scholarships.

The step up into the cut and thrust of the first team coincides with their continuing physical and emotional development as young men, a period which will test many of them to the full. 

For those who pass that test, a golden era in their lives await, as the 2024 rookies heard at first hand from a succession of recently retired players, who delivered workshops and presentations throughout the day.

Sam Tomkins, the former Wigan, New Zealand Warriors, Catalans Dragons and England star, shared his memories of escaping a job as a golf club groundsman to pursue his dream of rugby league glory.

Just two months after injury prompted his retirement at 34, Tomkins spoke passionately about what drove him throughout his career and had a poignant message for a captivated audience: “If anyone asks if this is your dream job, tell them no,” he said.

“A job is something you apply to do because you’ve seen an advert in the paper or online: being a professional rugby league player is a dream, and you’re going to be living that dream.”

There was a moving contribution from Leon Pryce, who revealed that despite enjoying considerable success with his hometown club, Bradford Bulls, it wasn’t until his move to St Helens that he achieved his potential. 

“I thought I was a great player at Bradford, but I was cocky and arrogant: when I joined Saints I realised I was overweight, lazy and nowhere near the player I could be,” said Pryce.

“Saints coach Daniel Anderson gave me a wake-up call by tearing strips off me in front of my new teammates after I’d cost us a game at Bradford. It was hard to take but it made me what I became.

“You’ve all got your careers in front of you and it all goes by very quickly so make the most of it, work hard, apply yourselves and do everything you can to be the best version of who you can be.” 

There were also key contributions from recent retirees Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Rob Parker, Garreth Carvell and Scott Taylor, who reflected on some of the lessons from their own careers, including coping with injuries, dealing with imposter syndrome and learning from more experienced teammates. 

Issues around pain managements were discussed by Dr David Laird, a specialist pain consultant with over 40 years’ experience in the NHS, and his son, Sam Laird, a former Royal Marine Commando. 

Sam Laird is now a valued member of the RL Cares community and health team, many of whom delivered 30-minute workshops in the afternoon session at Rookie Camp. 

Gareth Ellis and Paul Wood, who together played in almost 900 Super League games, hosted a workshop themed ‘Lifetime of leadership’; Damian Gibson and Sarah Chantler from Leeds Beckett got the players involved in a practical nutrition workshop in the university kitchen; and Bob Beswick spoke about the need for, and benefits of, effective communication within a team environment. 

Social media is an important part of life for every young person, and while its use can pose challenges for athletes, platforms like Instagram, X and Facebook also present many opportunities, which were discussed in a workshop hosted by two of IMG’s account directors, Daniel Chirwa and Nathan Frazer-Carroll.

“Rookie Camp is a terrific concept and it was brilliant to see all the youngsters who represent the future of rugby league together in one place as they prepare to set out on such an exciting journey,” said RL Cares director of welfare and wellbeing, Steve McCormack.

“It’s very much not a tick-box exercise, it’s designed to ensure that the players become the best they can be, both on and off the field. 

“Rookie Camp gives us an opportunity to introduce the players to RL Cares and tell them what the charity is all about; to share good practise and good advice; and to make them aware that we are here for them. 

“I’m immensely proud of the game: I’ve been involved in varying capacities for 30 years and I remain in awe of rugby league players. It was a privilege to meet 80 of the best young players in the world and think that we had the opportunity to be a good influence on them.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)

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