With the issue of reserve team rugby once again making the headlines over the past week, League Express has consulted with every English Super League club to discover their stance on one of the hottest talking points in the game right now. Only two clubs have promised to commit to reserves for 2019: Hull FC and Wakefield Trinity. It is just as important to point out that several non-Super League sides such as Halifax, Featherstone and Bradford, with significantly less funding, will also commit in 2019.
The investigation produced a number of key findings, including an overwhelming majority of Super League clubs wanting reserve grade to be made mandatory in 2020. From changing the age bracket for Academy rugby, to alternative solutions for reserve rugby altogether, here is how each Super League club – plus the RFL – views one of the biggest issues in Rugby League at present.
Castleford have considered running a reserve team on several occasions – and had previously suggested they would be open to having a side in place for the start of next season. However, their head of rugby Jon Wells told League Express there has to be a ‘serious conversation’ about how a reserve competition is financed moving forward – as well as stressing the need for a complete uptake across Super League.
He explained: “The Tigers are exploring a number of options, and ideally we would like to run a reserve team. But this would very much depend on a meaningful, league-wide buy-in and a serious conversation about the financing of such a league, at a time where an increasing proportion of most club spend sits in the first 18-20 team shirts.”
No representative of Huddersfield Giants was available to comment when contacted by League Express.
Hull and Wakefield are the only Super League sides to have committed to reserve rugby in 2019. Chief executive James Clark told League Express that he believes the lack of a proper organised competition is, above all else, impacting on the development of young British players.
He said: “Marquee players are important for the visibility of our competition, but is an aggregate spend of circa £2 million across eight to ten players this year worth the neglect of the next generation of our own homegrown players?” Clark also joined the clubs who want the age brackets changing to facilitate a return for full-time reserve grade.
He said: “We would encourage the Academy system to return to under-18s, re-evaluate scholarship to negate the impact on the community game and a mandatory reserve grade for those 19 and over. The system at present is failing our clubs and our players.”
Hull Kingston Rovers
Like many clubs across Super League, Hull KR won’t have a reserve team next year, but the club will back any changes to make the competition compulsory in the future. “I am supportive of reserve grade, but it needs reintroducing in a planned and coordinated manner,” Rovers Chairman Neil Hudgell told League Express. “Ad-hoc sides here and there won’t deliver a meaningful and challenging environment.”
Hudgell did join the list of clubs publicly supporting reserve rugby in 2020, commenting: “I would like to see that made a mandatory requirement of Super League membership from 2020 onwards.”
Long criticised for being anti-reserve grade, Gary Hetherington insists Leeds Rhinos do already have a reserve team in the form of their strong Academy. He believes continuing with that route is far more beneficial for not only each individual club, but for avoiding a player drain further down the professional game too.
Hetherington told League Express: “That is exactly what our Academy team is, our reserves. It forces us as a club to put some real resource into them, because we need those lads to be up to Super League standard. Then, if there is a point where they don’t make the cut, the rest of the game benefits, and we at Leeds help populate the rest of the professional game. We just don’t have enough players playing our sport to go and do something so radical.”
Hetherington also believes that any decision to make it mandatory once again must be done both with proper care and thought, as well as in good time. “There should be an expectation that we’re all investing in the future of the game,” Hetherington said. “I believe it would cost us at Leeds £150,000 to set up a reserve grade when you’re adding all the costs of it into our system from scratch.”
Having only been promoted to Super League in October, London coach Danny Ward understandably admits they were ‘behind the eight ball’ in their plans to return to the top-flight. The Broncos had held discussions about a reserve side in 2019 but said various factors, including their late promotion, meant they decided against doing it this year.
Ward explained: “Not knowing the strength of the competition and what we were committing to was another factor. We have the travel issue too; there was talk of reserve games being on Wednesdays, and we were planning to have part-time players in our reserve setup, so it would have been tough for them with work. It just all happened too late.”
Ward did, however, add: “I will advocate reserve grade while I’m at the helm of London Broncos. There’s enough of us who want to push it – it was just too short notice for us this year unfortunately.”
Salford Red Devils
Salford will not operate a reserve team next year, but chief executive Ian Blease insisted they plan to do so the following season. He said: “Reserve grade is where I learned my trade as a somewhat-late developer in the game. I’ve constructed a five-year strategy for this club, including a focus on setting up a reserve side in 2020.”
Blease also revealed how the club aim to use players from across the Greater Manchester region to build that side. “Finding our feet without a benefactor, it’s very important to me that we give local players a pathway into the first-team,” he said. “We have our Category 3 Academy and are about to launch a partnership with Hopwood Hall – as well as developing another Category 3 Academy in Manchester next year. If we can bolster those with a reserve team – maybe even a regional, Greater Manchester one – we are setting a pathway up for both the club and Rugby League in the area.”
St Helens were one of only two clubs that voted in favour of keeping reserve rugby when changes were made to just a solitary Academy, under-19s side several years ago. They will not run a fully-fledged reserve side next year, but intend to play ad-hoc games here and there.
However, they are adamant reserves must feature in a revamped formatting of tiered rugby below first-team level from 2020. “We proposed to the RFL as a club that there’s only one way forward,” explained their CEO, Mike Rush, to League Express. “That’s making the under-19s the under-18s again, which allows your 19-year-old players to play reserve rugby and your first-year Academy players to experience more Academy rugby. There’s only one reason we’re not doing it next year, and that’s because we kept putting teams out and games were getting postponed.”
Wakefield are one of only two Super League clubs that have promised to run a reserve side in 2019: and chief executive Michael Carter insists that will not change. “We are fully committed to this along with Hull,” Carter told League Express. “We’d geared up to do it for 2019 and we have no intention of changing our mind.
“We recruited deep in terms of our squad, meaning reserve rugby is high on our agenda – and it still is. We were looking at 18 games initially, so we had an open trial with 150 applications that we whittled down to 10. Factor in our relationship with Newcastle too, and we had a pathway to competitive rugby.”
Carter also insisted the cost is nominal in terms of a percentage of overall funding. “We’ve sacrificed the cost of one squad player to have a proper go at reserves,” he explained. “At the minute, it looks like there’ll only be four or five teams: and it’s cost us £30,000.”
Warrington have operated a reserve side in recent years, but chief executive Karl Fitzpatrick explained their frustrations about teams committing on a regular basis as the reason behind their decision to not have a team in 2019.
“There just aren’t enough teams involved,” he told League Express. “There were games getting postponed so often, it just didn’t make sense from an economic perspective. We signed players specifically for reserve grade and they were getting around five games a season.”
Fitzpatrick also offered a logical way to improve the player pool for reserve grade. He said: “On that logic, we decided not to go ahead, but we believe it should become mandatory from 2020 onwards. We believe you should reduce Academy from the under-19s to under-18s to follow the education system, and with that, you’ll have a full group of 19-year-olds that can play reserves.”
Wigan, staunch advocates of reserve rugby, have already agreed to abandon their plans for a side in 2019, League Express understands. Executive director Kris Radlinski last week said: “We’ll probably review our situation. It’s 100% the correct pathway, but the competition as is being presented to us now is not what we’ve bought into.
“There are only three Super League teams including ourselves, and no others in Lancashire. It’s a significant investment and amount of resource we have to throw at it – which we’re prepared to do – but if nobody else is doing it you have to question it. With extra staffing and things like that, it may cost us an extra £60,000 a year.”
Radlinski did admit, however, that Wigan would back mandatory reserve rugby in 2020. He said: “Other clubs are spending that on first-grade, so we need to understand where we sit over the next 12 months until it hopefully becomes mandatory.”
In a statement issued to League Express, the RFL said: “We have always been advocates of a reserve competition, and having encouraged more Super League clubs to reinvest in this level of rugby over the last year. We were pleased when a number of them made commitments to reintroduce teams in 2019.
“It has therefore been disappointing to see several clubs who had indicated they were going to take part reversing that decision in recent weeks, leaving only two Super League clubs – Hull FC and Wakefield Trinity. We would urge the other Super League clubs to start thinking seriously now about the logistics of ensuring they are ready to commit to a Reserve Team competition in 2020. A successful reserve programme and competitions requires the buy-in of all clubs – without this the objectives of having reserve grade will not be achieved.”