DOUG THOMSON considers Midlands Hurricanes’ campaign to expand the game in their region
BIRMINGHAM has a special place in the history of Rugby League.
For it was there that Great Britain clinched victory in the first-ever Ashes Test series of 1908-09.
After a 22-22 draw at the Park Royal Ground in West London (then home to Queens Park Rangers) and a 15-5 win by Great Britain (then known as the Northern Union) over Australia at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park, the sides reconvened at another fine football stadium, Villa Park.
The tourists, whose sky blue and maroon colours might well have struck a chord with any Aston Villa supporters present, were missing star centre and skipper Dally Messenger through injury.
And the hosts took advantage to claim a 6-5 victory with tries (then worth three points) by Wigan scrum-half Johnny Thomas and Oldham winger George Tyson.
Now, after almost 114 years and 38 further Ashes series, Midlands Hurricanes are attempting to establish professional Rugby League in the second city, and they recently announced a move to the Alexander Stadium complex (above), which staged the athletics events at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
And how they’d love to match the 9,000 attendance for that meeting at Villa Park (two miles to the South), or even the 4,000 who turned out for the second international there to see the Kangaroos seal the first of their 20 Ashes series successes with a 33-8 win.
The Hurricanes’ average gate for their first season in Birmingham after rebranding from the old Coventry Bears was 312, down by 90 on the last available figure at the Butts Park Arena from 2019, after which the pandemic took its distinctly unwelcome grip.
The relocation, initially to Portway, the home of Birmingham and Solihull Bees Rugby Union Club (not to be confused with Birmingham Moseley, who play in National One, the 15-a-side code’s third tier) as Midlands Hurricanes came in late 2021.
That was six years after Coventry Bears were accepted into League One and 23 after their initial formation by Alan Robinson, who first came to the city to study and won two Ireland caps while playing as a forward for the club in their early days.
Having initially been co-owner of the Birmingham operation with Mike Lomas, Robinson has now sold his shares to the Huddersfield businessman, who said at the time of the rebrand: “When the concept of Midlands Hurricanes presented itself, I was immediately excited about the opportunity.
“As a passionate Rugby League fan, I believe the club will, without a doubt, assist the expansion of Rugby League.
“The Midlands represents a large population of the UK and I fully believe that growing the sport in this area is paramount to the overall success of the game.”
The Bears – who won the old National League Three in 2004, when Birmingham Bulldogs were among their rivals – had already lasted longer than a previous Coventry club, who played for three seasons between 1910 and 1913, never finishing above fifth-bottom, before collapsing.
But in six completed campaigns (2020 having been ended early by Covid), their highest final position was eighth in 2021.
As the Hurricanes and again under coach Richard Squires, a teacher and former community development officer at Super League club Hull, they also finished eighth last season, winning six out of 20 games to be five points off the play-offs.
Now Chairman Lomas wants to progress both on and off the pitch, with his plans to develop the club including expansion into the community and future wheelchair and women’s sides.
Initially, the club will use the Alexander Stadium community facility, which acted as a warm-up area for the Commonwealths, with their first visitors Cornwall on Sunday, February 19 in the first round of League One.
But the eventual aim is to play at the main arena, which was renovated for the Games and currently holds 18,000.
Chief executive Greg Wood said: “It is fantastic to finally say officially that Midlands Hurricanes have a new home.
“We are absolutely thrilled to have agreed the partnership with the stadium to make it our home going forward.
“As stated, our ambition as a club is to grow the sport in the Midlands and by having such a prestigious venue as our hub, it gives a real focal point for the team, community and hopefully the region to get behind.
“We look forward to the growth of the sport and the club and see the stadium move as a key part of this as it gives us the right infrastructure.”
Lomas added: “I’d like to thank Greg and his team for their hard work, the Alexander Stadium team and also Birmingham City Council.
“We have a fantastic platform for Rugby League in the Midlands.”
This article is Doug Thomson’s ‘Championship Focus’ column from this week’s issue of League Express. You can take out a subscription by going to https://www.totalrl.com/league-express/