Q & A: All you need to know about Cornwall RLFC

Last week the Rugby League world was perhaps surprised to learn that the Canadian club Ottawa Aces would re-locate to Penryn in Cornwall to play in Betfred League 1 during the 2022 Rugby League season.

League Express has spoken to Cornwall RLFC Commercial Director Rob Butland about the prospects for Rugby League’s newest semi-professional club, which will join Betfred League 1 next season.

LE: Who are the club directors and is there a limited company that will be responsible for running the club?

RB: We will have a similar structure to other League One clubs. We have a group of Directors with a proven track record in sports management and a lot of other areas of business and finance, so we are confident in who we have around the table.

LE: Who is financing the club? How much capital does it have?

RB: The club has a scalable business model that will allow us to grow sustainably in the coming seasons. We intend to live to our means, and not beyond them, but with that said this is a growing club and there will be sensible investment where prudent, not just on the pitch but in continuing the fantastic development work already taking place.

LE: Will there be a full-time element to the playing squad?

RB: We envisage part-time but, as with all clubs and businesses, if opportunities present themselves which are right for everyone involved then nothing is off the table.

LE: Do you have a head coach lined up?

RB: We will be making various announcements about various club personnel in the coming weeks.

LE: Does the club have enough time to assemble a squad capable of being competitive in League 1, given the short timescale available and other clubs having had a head start in signing up available players?

RB: We can’t worry about the head start, as we can only do what is right for us based on our own trajectory. If you think about it, most other clubs have a 125-year head start – that’s part of being a new club. We intend to assemble a squad that will show Cornwall what Rugby League is about and show Rugby League what Cornwall is all about.

LE: How much research was done in the local area as to the long-term viability of a Rugby League club in this area and will the results of that research be made public to allay any possible scepticism that might exist?

RB: Community club Cornish Rebels have had a working business plan with a League 1 club in mind for a number of years, and despite an unsuccessful bid for RLWC 2021 Festival activity, the ambition and credentials employed and exhibited in that process was just the start and the ambition for Cornwall to have a League 1 club has been on the RFL radar for a long time. To us it never felt like we wouldn’t do it one day. We set ourselves the goal and it was ‘when’ not ‘if’.
It’s a place different to everywhere else in the UK and so the development model and history is unique; Covid has challenged and slowed activity, of course, but the wheels are turning again and we will pick up where we left off quite quickly.
What is absolutely clear is that Cornwall has players, it has fans and it has industry far beyond its populous. The key elements are there, we just need the vehicle to bring them all together. This club can be exactly that.

LE: What kind of information did the club have to supply to the RFL for them to approve establishing a club in this area?

RB: As mentioned previously, there has been a working business and development plan for a Cornwall team for a number of years. It was simply a case of embracing the plans of both Cornwall and what the original plans were for Ottawa and, in all honesty, the two were never that far apart. It felt like a natural fit.

LE: Were any other locations seriously considered, and if so, where?

RB: Of course, when you are stewarding such a precious thing as an RFL member club then it’s not something you make such significant change to lightly. Many things were considered, but ultimately Cornwall is a sleeping giant and the opportunity to awaken the beast was too good to miss.

LE: Cornwall is a renowned rugby union stronghold. Do you expect to meet any resistance as a rival code?

RB: People are always naturally protective of what they work hard at, and so we’d expect nothing less. We’re confident there will be some initial wariness but everyone knows there would be no Jason Robinson or Sonny Bill without both codes, so we are confident there are huge positives to being a dual-code county. We will give Cornish athletes the opportunity, and we will let the athletes make the decision. That’s all anyone can reasonably expect.

LE: The phrase ‘Cornish first’ has been used. What does that mean in practice?

RB: It means that where it is prudent and practicable, we intend to utilise and use Cornish and Cornwall-based players, staff, partnerships and resources. It also means that everything we do, we do it to positively contribute to Cornwall’s already very rich tapestry.

LE: It is likely that experienced players will be needed to build a competitive team, especially in the early years. Do you expect the club’s location to be a help or a hindrance in achieving such signings?

RB: I find it hard to believe that in the whole of the UK there isn’t at least a handful of experienced Rugby League players that wouldn’t fancy living in Cornwall for a season or two. It’s a long way from home, maybe, but it’s Cornwall, not Mars. There’s a reason so many people want to live here – it has a lot to offer. Why wouldn’t Rugby League players want to experience that whilst playing Rugby League at the same time?

LE: What links have you established with local media with a view to gaining support and coverage? Have they shown an interest in covering your games?

RB: Cornish Rebels were having their games covered play-by-play on local radio five years ago and since launching this club we’ve had local radio and TV coverage. The outlets support Rugby League because it’s a good opportunity to cover sport in the summer – they want content and now we can give it to them. The job we have now is to make it exciting. So far so good!

LE: Have you established any links with existing grassroots Rugby League activists in the area and if so, what has been their reaction?

RB: Everybody knows that RL supporters have a habit of naturally ‘finding’ each other and there is always that instant connection. This Cornwall club is proud to have extremely close links with The Rebels, who have been building those links and relationships for a decade. As soon as people realise that The Rebels will still be a vital part of the pathway and looking after the development of the sport in the area, alongside us, then people are incredibly positive.

LE: The most apparently similar project to yours is West Wales Raiders. What lessons can you learn from their experiences so far in League 1?

RB: There may well be similar challenges; the geography being the obvious one, though the distance from us to Rochdale isn’t that much different from Newcastle to London. In fact, it’s further from Newcastle to West Wales than it is from Swinton to Cornwall.
It’s easy to have the answers from the outside looking in, but the only people who really know the challenges are the people who run the clubs, and so it would be foolish to assume what any club has or has not done well without knowing all the variables.
You can draw parallels, but we can’t and won’t model ourselves on or against anyone else. Ten years of development in this area has taught us that what works in the rest of the UK doesn’t always work here, and vice versa.

LE: Do you anticipate offering any financial assistance for opposition clubs in terms of travel and accommodation?

RB: I can understand why that’s been done in the past in extreme circumstances, but as I’ve already said its Cornwall, not another planet. These are professional clubs who compete in a national sport. Travel comes with the territory, quite literally. There is an opportunity for clubs to harness our offer and turn it into commercial gain. It’s just up to them to see it.

LE: How will the team be travelling to its away games? Presumably overnight stays will be required, adding to the overall costs of the venture?

RB: We will vary it, and we haven’t ruled out flying to reduce the travel time if we feel that we want to. We have great travel operators already working with clubs in the area and as ever we will do what is right for everyone, under the circumstances.

LE: What are short term and long term aims for the club, in terms of on-field achievement and attendances?

RB: We are realistic in terms of what we can expect in the short term. We don’t want this to be a flash in the pan, but it’s going to take time. Long term anything is possible. If a town with 40,000 people in it can compete in Super League, then it’s probably fair to say that with enough, effort and determination, a county with a half a million people should be able to.
Attendance wise, we expect a huge amount of initial curiosity and we have to turn that into longer term interest and fandom. There are RL fans here already who we can’t wait to connect with, and plenty who have connected already. We have one of the most exciting field sports in the world, in one of the most exciting parts of the country. There’s four months of the year when there is no other professional sport going on here and the population triples during the summer. This team represents everyone in Cornwall and we are sure that from half a million residents we can get a healthy crowd and grow that over time.

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