Two old and deadly rivals working together for a common cause. What’s going on? RLW gets to the bottom of it…
WORDS: James O’Brien | PHOTOS: SWPix.com
IT’S AS RARE AS SNOW IN SUMMER and something that doesn’t come naturally to supporters from either side of the city.
Fans of Hull FC and Hull KR are fiercely proud and love to hate their cross-city rivals. It’s a rivalry which divides families and generates arguably the most vociferous match day atmosphere in Super League. So, you know something serious is afoot when Black and Whites and Red and Whites are in agreement on something and then come together in protest.
The decision to combine the two academies in Hull to create one ‘Super Academy’ has left supporters sick at the thought of their clubs losing their identity at youth level.The new team will be based at Bishop Burton College, the home of Hull City’s Academy, and will play in the neutral colours of yellow and blue, which are found on the Hull City Council crest. Other details including an official name for the under-16s and under-19s and which coaches will be tasked with leading the teams into the 2016 season have yet to be ironed out, as well as how the draft system will work.
Outraged supporters from both sides of Hull claim it is nothing more than a cost-cutting exercise, with some fearing a full merger down the track. But the men behind the ground-breaking decision, Neil Hudgell and Adam Pearson, insist the reasons extend far beyond money.
“For the players, it will provide one elite environment with the best facilities, resources and coaching staff,” said Rovers chairman Hudgell, who confirmed the vision is for the ‘Super Academy’ to compete in League 1.
“Education and welfare is also paramount, so if they don’t make it as professionals they can at least expect to leave the academy with skills tailored to their ambitions outside of rugby.
“For the clubs, the obvious benefit is players who are more matured physically and emotionally and with a higher skill level. It’s very noticeable, for example, that if you look at the likes of Leeds, Wigan and Saints, their juniors are physically bigger than ours. They aren’t born bigger, their conditioning and education is simply better.
“We have the talent, we need the resources to unearth it and develop it properly.”
He added: “The whole suggestion of penny pinching is naive in the extreme. We will strip out unnecessary cost and reinvest in key areas. It’s the same process of rationalisation and consolidation as in any business takeover or acquisition. If you each pay £30,000 for a coach then you get a level of candidate to reflect that. Pay £60,000 for one coach between us and doesn’t the calibre of that person increase? You can apply that logic across the board to physios, conditioners, nutrition, facilities. A big investment will take place in coaching the coaches and upskilling technical ability across the whole academy.”
Hull FC owner Pearson expects more clubs to follow suit with Super League keen to reduce the number of academies from 14 to eight.
He said in the original statement: “To develop an academy function that the city on the whole can be proud of will allow us to focus time, energy and resources on these key areas which will create a pathway to develop international stars of the future, whilst also allowing both clubs and Rugby League to be pioneers in setting up the first of these ‘Super Academies’, that will soon become commonplace across the country.”
Paul Medley, the RFL’s National Player Development Manager, confirmed eight academies is the ideal number based on participation — there are around 2,400 youngsters playing the game across the country.
“If you were looking at taking the correct percentage to make an elite performance environment, you would look at eight high-performing academies,” he explained.
“So you’re not diluting that player supply, you’re actually making it harder to get into that environment and it then becomes highly competitive because there are only eight teams. Those become very competitive so you don’t have the lopsided scores you get sometimes at academy level.”
Medley, who acknowledged clubs have made notable strides forward and invested heavily in their academies since the introduction of accreditations, thinks other clubs will keep a close eye on developments in Hull.
“A lot of clubs are going to be looking at this and seeing how the model performs,” he added.
“These two clubs have looked to pool resources, their expertise, share costs and look to make significant investment into one quality environment instead of two environments fighting against each other. The standards are definitely going to go up. We could be sat here in five years’ time revelling about the fact it’s been a massive success and a shining light for everyone to look at and roll out a similar sort of process. It’s been very bold and visionary of them to make that decision and try to make sure Hull has two quality teams competing at the highest level of Super League and challenging for honours.”
The draft system is the element which has been most talked about. How will it work exactly?
Hudgell said: “The fine detail of the project is still being worked through; it is an evolving process.
“There has to be an element of trust between the clubs for this to work though, and the whole mechanics of how the draft will work is probably the most testing part of that trust element to relations. I have a good relationship with Adam, without that it could not have got off the drawing board.”
This is an area of real concern for Hull FC and Hull KR fans, who fear helping to develop a top-quality player before watching him tear up Super League for their fierce rivals. Worse still, leading them to a major trophy.
There is the question of who will get first pick in the draft system and how much of a say players will have in who they sign professional terms with. If, as expected, the draft takes place at the end of the season, will a player who is among the best at under-19 level have to wait until the following year to make the step up to Super League? The question of loyalty is perhaps the most interesting — would a young player who has been either a Hull FC or Hull KR fan since birth put pride before the opportunity to play for a Super League club?
“There are Hull KR fans in Hull FC’s academy and vice versa,” Hudgell said.
“On the whole, it’s a romantic notion for kids to play for ‘the badge’. In my experience, parents choose which club their child signs for based on the best environment and the offering as a whole.”
But supporters with close links to the current academy set-ups feel the players would take some convincing to sign terms with a club they have been raised to hate. Hull KR fan Len Beecroft, who has been to most under-19s and under-16s home matches this season, commented: “I know one lad who plays now and he said there would be absolutely no way he would sign for Hull FC, and it’ll be the same the other way. It might be a bit different in a few years but certainly lads who are involved at the moment would find it tough.”
Hull FC supporter Dan Tomlinson has missed only four academy games in 2015 and knows a few of the club’s under-19s players.
“They’re not happy,” he said. “Their mums and dads are fuming. I’ve had a couple of texts from players, who are Hull fans at the end of the day, that have said they don’t want to mix with Rovers.
“They’ve been taught to hate them all their lives and now they’re expected to play with them.”
One player who made the tough decision to move from one Hull club to the other is Josh Hodgson, an FC academy graduate who earned a move to the NRL following impressive performances for Rovers. Hodgson has backed the merger and does not expect there to be any problems when the two groups of players come together in one dressing room next season.
“When you’re from Hull and you’re playing the likes of Leeds, Castleford and Wigan, you soon get that team spirit and togetherness,” said the Canberra hooker, whose parents switched allegiance following his move from west to east.
“I wouldn’t think it’ll take too long to get them together at all. They’re young kids and will adapt pretty quickly. From a fan’s perspective, they want the clubs separate because they’re pretty big on their pride and the rivalry. I can understand that, but at the same time you’re going to get better players coming through the system.”
Hodgson had a few words of advice for youngsters who might be reluctant to play for the other club, adding: “I’d say that’s pretty stupid. You go where you think you’re going to get the best chance of playing and where you can take your career forward. You want to be loyal to the side of Hull where you’re from but at the end of the day you need to go to the right team.”
Hodgson is one of few players to have come through one of the two academies in recent years and gone on to play at the highest level.
Hull FC enjoyed success over a Wigan side containing Sam and Joel Tomkins in 2005 before beating a Leeds team boasting Ryan Hall and Luke Gale two years later.
The Black and Whites have struggled to make an impact at academy level since but are currently enjoying a strong season at under-19 level.
“This year on the back of Pearson’s investment I think you’re finally seeing results,” Tomlinson said.
“The last two years they’ve had sixth-place finishes and they’re third this year. The timing is really strange because he’s finally seeing the progression of his investment. I just don’t agree with his motive.
“If it was two or three years ago, you could have maybe agreed with it because you didn’t have the player personnel coming through. But we do now.”
The 23-year-old admitted he would find it difficult to support the ‘Super Academy’ from next year, as too would Beecroft, who has been following Rovers for 66 years. He hasn’t been swayed one way or the other on the matter but won’t be making the 25-mile round trip to Bishop Burton.
Beecroft can see how the move might benefit the two clubs in the long run, although he thinks the Robins are getting the better end of the deal in the short term.
“I’m a bit surprised from a Hull point of view because their academy is obviously better than ours,” he added.
“They’re turning over players like [Callum] Lancaster and [Jordan] Abdull, while there’s virtually no-one at Rovers that will make the first team. Other than Scott Taylor, we just aren’t producing anybody for one reason or another. From that point of view, I think the merger might do a bit of good.”
Neither Tomlinson nor Beecroft are concerned about this being the first step on the road to a full merger.
But for those who are, Hudgell added: “Merger, never in my lifetime. I was a ball boy at nine years old; the club is my blood and generations of my family before me.
“I understand concerns when the ‘M’ word is mentioned; perhaps it was a mistake using it. I would ask them to stick with us, keep an open mind, and see what develops over the coming months. I think it’s innovative and will form the foundations from which we can build an academy that dominates other parts of the country.”
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