RFL’s Academy strategy raises a storm

Hull KR have demanded an urgent independent review after being told by the RFL that they, Bradford and Castleford have lost the right to run a top-level Academy, which was revealed in an RFL announcement on Friday.

Leigh and Salford were both unsuccessful in new applications to run an ‘elite’ player development system from 2022-27.

The ten clubs who came through the latest bidding process are Catalans, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, London Broncos, Newcastle, St Helens, Wakefield, Warrington and Wigan.

The decision-making panel was convened by the RFL and Super League Europe and included two independent members.

The RFL say that the clubs that missed out have been provided with detailed feedback and can reapply in 2024.

They will still be able to operate development Academies, which are run in conjunction with further education institutions, and play in the Colleges competition.

The RFL’s chief on-field officer Dave Rotheram emphasised that “ultimately, the aim of elite Academies is the production of Super League and England players” and that the number produced by clubs since the licences were last issued in 2016 had carried a heavy weighting.

Hull KR said in a statement: “We have sought from the RFL an urgent independent review.

“The club consider the application strong and meritorious, and that one of the two remaining places left open by the process should be granted.

“At no stage before the announcement, nor during the process, have the club received any feedback.

“The club are deeply concerned by the devastating impact this decision has had on its staff and young players.”

Bradford Bulls also expressed their anger about their exclusion, saying in a statement: “We are struggling to understand any RFL strategy that apparently prevents young Bradford players playing for Bradford.

“The decision, if left to stand, is immensely damaging to the sport, the city and the welfare of 90-plus young players and staff.”

Castleford coach Daryl Powell called the RFL’s decision a “mistake” and “short-sighted”.

He added: “We had a lean spell but there are some high-quality players in our Academy now.”

The licensing process had been delayed since 2019, partly as a result of the disruption caused by Covid.

According to the RFL, the licences have been extended to six years because of the long-term nature of player development.

Rotheram insists that they were also mindful of protecting the community game, leading to an agreement that a maximum of twelve licences be awarded – up to nine in the game’s defined ‘core affinity areas’, up to two in defined ‘emerging affinity areas’, so extending the talent pool beyond the traditional heartlands, and up to one in France.

The panel was chaired by Dean Andrew, who had the same role in the determination of the 14th Championship club for this season following Leigh’s elevation to Super League in place of Toronto, and also included Duncan Truswell, Sport England’s strategic lead for performance and talent.

The RFL representation was led by Rotheram and also included Marc Lovering (director of participation and development), Samantha Allen (head of professional game delivery) and Paul Medley (national player progression manager).

Andrew said: “This has been a robust and rigorous process, with an emphasis on quality and realism.

“We did not work to award a set number of licences, but to ensure those licences awarded were to truly elite Academies, and to bear in mind the importance of protecting the community game.”

Truswell said: “It was a competitive process and there were inevitably some difficult choices to be made.

“As one of the two independent panel members reviewing the submissions and overseeing the process, I was impressed by its robustness and rigour.”

This year’s Academy competition, which has begun in a revised format following delays due to the pandemic, will continue as scheduled.

There is no formal league after an agreement between the RFL and heads of youth at clubs that the priority should be maximising playing and development opportunities after the loss of the bulk of the 2020 Academy Championship as a result of the pandemic.

The age limit has reverted to Under 19 from Under 18 because of the postponement of this season’s Reserve Championship.

Fixtures run until the weekend of September 25/26.

Round-one results: Bradford 16 Wigan 48, Wakefield 32 Hull 14, Warrington 50 Newcastle 14, Huddersfield 20 Castleford 24, London 0 Leeds 54.

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