The ‘rugby mum’ overseeing the impressive growth of Rugby League in Norway

Rugby League in Norway continues to grow thanks to a determination to invest in young homegrown talent rather than opting for heritage players.

SHORTLY after Rugby League World hung up after chatting with Norway Rugby League President Anne Haigh, an episode of the English TV quiz show The Chase aired with a revelation that 10 of the 30 tallest waterfalls in the world are located in Norway. It came as a surprise to the contestant. 

The fact that rugby league has been alive and well in the same Scandinavian country since 2009 would have most likely elicited the same response with the majority of viewers.

Former cabin crew member with SAS-Scandinavian Airlines, Norwegian born Anne Haigh, who lives in Saddleworth in the north of England, was at a loose end when she retired from the airline industry.

“I am really a rugby mum,” Haigh explained. When we moved to England my son, who was six or seven at the time, I have to say was conned into playing rugby league. I used to pick the kids up from school and there was a dad there who used to play semi-professional rugby who was coaching the under 7s and he used to come up to me and say he was having Lars on his team and I always said over my dead body. Like anyone who doesn’t know anything about rugby league, and I would say that’s at least 90 per cent of the Norwegian population, it’s thought of as a dangerous sport.

“Then one evening we were walking past the field where they train and the coach came up to me and grabbed Lars and said ‘you are here at last’. I have to say it’s the best thing that has ever happened to my son. You learn so much about discipline and team leadership.

“Both my sons Lars and Nils ended up representing the Norwegian national team and when I retired from my airline career 10 or 11 years ago, Lars suggested I take on a voluntary role as manager with Norway Rugby League and now that has taken over my life,” exclaimed Haigh, who also has a role as leader of the Lillestrom Lions club and took over the position of Norway Rugby League President three years ago. 

Haigh is currently overseeing what looks to be a bright future for the sport in Norway with under 16s and 19s national teams recently being developed and more matches planned for the senior team after games against the Netherlands and Greece in 2023. These matches followed a game against Poland in 2022 after the Covid pandemic led to a lack of international fixtures. In 2019 Norway went down to Greece in the latter stages of the 2021 World Cup qualifying process in London. Ranked 28th in the world, Norway has ambitions for more success on the international stage.

“The biggest problem we have in Norway is the cost so over the years it has been extremely difficult to get national teams to visit us. We were very happy that Greece still came to visit us after the European B Championship matches were delayed due to uncertainty around the World Cup.”

Norway will be out to avenge the last two losses against Greece when they meet again in May this year in Athens.

In the meantime Haigh and her team will look to consolidate and expand the domestic competition. In the latest available (2022) International Rugby League annual report Norway is listed as having 11 clubs and 413 participants. 

“We are working really hard on kids and youth because that’s the future. This is why I want to work on the under 19s because that’s the way you can build rugby league in Norway. To get to the regions participating and have the clubs grow you can’t just have expats. So that’s why it is important to start with the young ones.

“We have a club in Norway, the Farsund Bobcats who lost their senior team a couple of years ago because they didn’t have enough players. So they started coaching kids and youth and now they are back again this year with a senior team because of this. They (Farsund) are the biggest youth club in Norway. They have about 60 kids and youth playing.

“We hope to join the next under 19s European Championships. We are not joining this year because we have only just started our national 16s and 19s teams. So we are going to play in Czechia in March and then in August we go to Serbia with the teams.”

Former international Norwegian Kim Andre Seglem, who accumulated seven caps for Norway, believes the nation has a bright future in rugby league.

“We have a sustainable and growing junior base and we are working at hitting the membership criterion for International Rugby League and World Cup qualification,” said Seglem, who is the Rugby League Norge social media manager and club president at Sandnes Raiders.

“We have some geographical challenges due to large distance between teams. In 2022 we had to make a 2000km roundtrip for one of our games. Also a lack of volunteers off the field is an issue. A lack of international programs also makes it challenging for the pinnacle of our sport.”

While many nations have looked to players born overseas to boost their national ranks, Seglem doesn’t see a heritage player strategy as being a sustainable solution for Norway. 

“Heritage players don’t do anything for our local game so it hasn’t been looked into, we have brought in one from England and one from Australia within the past six years. We have some expats that qualify on residency but other than that its all domestic Norwegians.”

Norway will play Greece in Athens on Saturday, 25th May.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 494 (March 2024)

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