With big names such as Bradford and York securing promotion from League 1 last season, and the third-tier being reduced to just 11 teams, it may be easy for casual rugby league fans to pay less attention to the competition in 2019. However, do so at your peril – because you may well miss one of the most encouraging stories across the whole of the professional game.
Newcastle Thunder are arguably the most ambitious club in League 1, underlined by the fact they are targeting promotion into the Championship this season – a feat many are tipping them to achieve given their impressive recruitment drive thus far.
However, in a sport where participation numbers are falling across the board, it is what the Thunder are doing beneath first-team level which deserves a platform all of its own. Newcastle, rather than the RFL, take the leading responsibility for the running of rugby league in the North East at all levels, a strategic move which is already paying huge dividends.
As general manager Jordan Robinson explains to TotalRL: “It’s very similar to the model you see in Australia. We’ve got 12 clubs up here now in the North East and some of them have got Open Age sides, while some haven’t – so it’s our job and our responsibility to grow that as well as grow ourselves.
“But our participation numbers are rocketing; in three years, they’ve gone up 19%. We’ve got over 1,300 players registered to play at local clubs across the North East – and while we know it’s not massive just yet, if we look at the fact we’re growing that number year-on-year, it’s hard not to be excited about what we’re putting in place.”
Underlined by their intent to administrate North East rugby league at all levels rather than allowing other bodies to do so, it is clear Newcastle are not afraid to do things differently. But it quickly becomes apparent from speaking with Robinson that the community is at the heart of every decision they make – including planning first-team fixtures.
“When we get our League 1 fixtures every year, we arrange community fixtures around them so it all fits in and nobody feels like they’ve got to miss anything,” Robinson reveals. “Our local finals day will always be at our stadium to try and put on a show, and we’ll always try and make our kids feel like superstars when they play here, with a big screen up for parents to watch the games.
“The biggest gripe from a lot of community clubs elsewhere across the country is that professional teams cherry-pick the best juniors, spit them out and eventually cast them aside. We’ve tried to move away from that and said we won’t just develop who we think are the best – we’ll develop everyone. Any junior player that wants to get involved with the Thunder can do so.”
The Thunder’s remit for developing rugby league in the North East is not just limited to Newcastle itself, either.
Robinson says: “Edinburgh Eagles are now in our structure, Glasgow are hopefully going to do the same and we’ve a club in Middlesbrough that went from nine kids playing there to 64 in just two years. We don’t have a lot of resources given to us so we’re putting our own money in and relying on volunteers, but we do what we can.
“There used to be four or five full-time coaches across the region but what you’d get with that is a bit of complacency when it came to how we develop the sport. Participation wasn’t as high then as it is now with no full-time staff – and of course, it helps that the club are picking up a bit.”
Robinson’s assertion that things have picked up ‘a bit’ with Newcastle is an understatement. Crowds have gone up five-fold in just two years, with the community again at the heart of their crowds, which regularly reach four figures – that should comfortably be the highest in League 1 in 2019.
The Thunder’s owners, who also own rugby union side Newcastle Falcons, have invested in making the club a sustainable, profitable business – with junior development again their core philosophy.
“People come down to see us and they can see a club on the rise now,” Robinson admits. “The owner sees the importance of solid foundations, and he’s paying community coaches to go into schools. We get half the funding Super League clubs do for our Academy; the owner makes up the rest. He invests each year because he wants this club to be built organically, from the ground up. Average attendances have gone from 200 to 1,000 in five years – it’s a phenomenal rise.”
On the field, big names such as Liam Finn, Keal Carlile and Misi Taulapapa have arrived to bolster Jason Payne’s squad too – and Robinson is in no doubt about the goal for Newcastle’s first-team in 2019.
“Everyone at the club is fully focused on gaining promotion,” he insists. “We’ve picked up some experienced signings that we’re really happy with – Liam is the big one, but there are others. We need to take the next step now and taking nothing away from the rest of the division, we expect to be really competitive. We’ve got a fantastic dual-registration agreement with Wakefield and we’re going to utilise it.”
And if they handle their promotion push as well as they have the redevelopment of the community game in the North East, then League 1 had better be careful of the Thunder in 2019.