Talent School – The rise of University Rugby League

University Rugby League is providing a pathway into the sport for people who might otherwise never have picked up a ball, as new Workington Town signing Elliot Hall can testify.

University often sees young people try new things.

Now I know what you’re thinking! But there are students throughout the country that say no to their first cigarette and pick up a Rugby League ball instead.

One of those was Elliot Hall. When the London-born back moved north to Loughborough, he’d never played the greatest game, but fast forward a few years, he’s graduated with a first in Sports Science Management and has earned a two-year contract with Workington Town under Chris Thorman.

Elliot isn’t alone in finding the student game a brilliant pathway into the professional game. This off-season has seen the progression of several former University Rugby League stars. Both Zack McComb (Leeds Beckett) and Lewis Taylor (Loughborough) have moved up to the Championship, signing with Sheffield Eagles. Jason Bass last year moved from Coventry to York and featured heavily as the City Knights finished well in the Championship. Meanwhile, we’ve also seen former Leeds Beckett student Alex Walmsley representing Great Britain in the Test series against New Zealand.

There are others, of course, and Elliot knows how important it is to have those inspiring figures there for students starting out in the 13-a-side game.

“They’re definitely role models and they represent that pathway of where you can get to while playing student Rugby League,” he began.

“It definitely sets a platform for further development and opportunities even in my year alone of playing student Rugby League. It definitely provides you with plenty of opportunities to progress further and it’s something that coaches should take note of because there is plenty of talent in the game.”

The young star represented the South of England Universities in an Origin game against the North, which saw him break his leg in a freak change of direction, before he progressed to play for England at Student level in a World Cup down under. Then, when on placement for his degree, Hall joined London Skolars for his first taste of League 1 professional Rugby League.

But the next two years promise to be a big change for the former Skolar.

“I just graduated from Uni this summer and so I had more options as to where I can play.

“I was at Coventry last year and managed to put in some good performances. I scored 17 tries in 20 games and Chris Thorman got in contact with me and said he’d been looking at me throughout the year and asked if I was interested in coming and having a chat with him and a look around.”

It’s hardly surprising that Thorman took an interest in Hall’s career. Coventry sprung one of the surprises of the season on Thorman’s Town when they defeated the Cumbrians 41-30 in May.

“That was a great team performance from a Coventry perspective, and I had a good game. I scored a length-of-the-field try from a tap on the 20. I’m sure that stood out in his eyes.”

For a young lad from London, to move up to Cumbria is a big step. But he’s certainly not been put off so far.

“I’ve just moved up to Carlisle. I decided to move up to make the commitment easier. It’s definitely different but I’m pleasantly surprised. I’d never been to Carlisle before or even Cumbria that much until this month. Carlisle especially is a nice area. There’s plenty to do and plenty of activity. I can definitely see myself settling in just fine.

“I went and had a look around Workington and met with Chris. He was an influential factor in me joining the club. He explained the vision of the club and that reinforced the potential of Workington Town. Everyone told me how great a coach he was as well as a good man manager. That’s what I look for in a coach. His appointment represents a new era for the club. A new culture can be instilled and that’s vital for success.”

One of the exciting prospects about joining Town must be the impending inclusion in the Cumbrian derby and Hall is looking forward to throwing himself in at the deep end when his team face Whitehaven in a pre-season friendly.

“I’m looking forward to being part of that. I’ve taken note of them in the past and how passionate the Cumbrian fans are and the rivalry between those two teams and that’s something I’m looking forward to playing in.”

Just like he has a lot to learn about Cumbrian life, Hall still has plenty to learn and improvements to be made when it comes to Rugby League as well.

“There are obviously still things I can work on and improve and that’s why, with Chris’ guidance, I feel I’m only going to go from strength and strength.

“I love my Rugby League. Ever since I started playing it, I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve got an opportunity to further develop and learn under Chris, someone who has great experience and I feel I’m only going to get better in the next two years.

“I want to build on previous seasons and be a better player than I was last year. I’m really excited about the next two years. I’m grateful for the opportunity to further develop and head to a club that’s got a high profile and is heading in the right direction.”

So, if you’re thinking of trying something new, whether that’s at University or, indeed, in any other walk of life, make sure you don’t set any kind of bar. Because, as Elliot and the other students making a noise in Rugby League have proved, the sky is the limit!

First published in Rugby League World, Issue 464 (December 2019)