The Self-Isolation Chronicles: London Skolars

1. One of their most prolific players had a serious, life-threatening disease.

Nigerian-born winger Ade Adebisi hit 51 tries in only 66 games for London Skolars, between 2010 and 2013, after similar try-scoring exploits with Whitehaven. What makes his try-scoring prowess more impressive is that Adebisi suffers from Sickle Cell Disease, which can be life-threatening. The condition affects red blood cells and means they have a lesser life-expectancy than healthy blood cells. They eventually become stuck in blood vessels and, at the height of the disease, results in painful episodes as well as increased risk of serious infections. Shortness of breath and fatigue is another common symptom and impact on the body is advised against by doctors. That didn’t stop Adebisi, who defied doctor’s orders by becoming a professional sportsman. At points in his career, he was hospitalised for a full week, due to the condition. He now campaigns for the disease, working in his native Nigeria, and heads the country’s Rugby League Federation as general manager and vice president.

2. They were the first British team to host a team from the Republic of Tatarstan.

That’s not a made-up country or a sauce for fish and chips, either, it’s a region of Russia. For those who are well acquainted with Russia geography, the region sits to the West and boasts Kazan as its capital city, in the larger district of Volga. Almost 4,000,000 people inhabit Tatarstan and they even have their own language, Tatar. In 1998, the Skolars hosted Strella XIII, a team from the region, in what was the first time a travelling side from that part of Russia had played in the UK. The Skolars returned the favour in 1999, becoming the first amateur club to tour the Soviet Union with a trip to Tatarstan themselves.

3. Their first professional coach played softball internationally.

The Skolars appointed their first professional coach, New Zealander Latham Tawhai, in 2005. The former halfback had featured for Keighley Cougars, Doncaster, Rochdale Hornets, Hull KR and Hunslet Hawks, with his last club employing him in a player-coach capacity before his appointment at the Skolars. He had also worked with the RFL’s coaching pathway in Leeds and their Elite Player Camps, while also holding a position at the Bradford Bulls Foundation. Tawhai also led amateur club Drighlington to success in the Pennine Premier League and the Yorkshire Cup, in 2005, as the Skolars gave him their top job. In doing so, they also appointed a former international softball player for New Zealand and Great Britain. He turned out for the New Zealand Fastpitch softball side, and for those who don’t know the sport it’s basically a version of baseball. The ball, by the way, is not soft. It used to be. Now it’s harder than an actual baseball. Anyway, Tawhai also want to the USA to play the sport and then, after being a resident of the UK for long enough, got the opportunity to represent Great Britain at the 2004 World Softball Championships in New Zealand. He focused on Rugby League once again after his unusual dip into the sport, becoming 2007 Co-operative National League Two Coach of the Year and being named Brian McDermott’s assistant at Harlequins at the end of the season. He stayed there until 2012, with the club becoming the London Broncos in the interim. He has since gone on to work for a range of UK-based sportswear companies.

4. The name ‘Skolars’ is actually a reference to a lager sponsorship that fell through.

You’d be forgiven that the adopted moniker was a nod to their University roots, but the reality is far from it. The club was founded by Hector McNeil, in 1995, after he couldn’t find a team to play for. McNeil was one of the founding members of Scotland Rugby League and was a Scotland Student international, and called the first side Student Rugby League Old Boys. That didn’t really have a ring to it, so the club were on the lookout of a rebrand. Two years later, following a proposed sponsorship deal with Skol Lager, the group of academics became London Skolars instead. Of course, the double entendre is very clear but the name comes from the lager and not the fact they were all students. A 1979 advert by the originally Scottish beer (although it thrived in Scandinavia) adopted the mantra “you’re a gentleman and a skolar” and the rebrand was clearly a homage to that campaign. What makes this even more interesting though is that the sponsorship deal never happened, yet the Skolars name lives on until this very day.

5. Three of their former players have huge roles in the development of Rugby League in Scandinavia.

Three former Skolars players who have probably seen a Skol or two on the Scandinavian shelves play a huge role in the development of Rugby League in the uppermost Northern corners of Europe. Nigel Kitching played for the club, as well as for Avignon, before moving to Denmark. He played for the national side and is now their coach, leading them to the Nordic Cup in 2011 and 2014. Denmark actually made their international debut in a London Skolars kit, against Sweden in 2011, as they had only just formed their Federation. The Swedes were led by Scott Edwards, another former Skolars player, who was the chairman of their Federation. He moved to the country in 2004, to work as a school teacher, and began developing the embryonic stages of the sport there in 2009. He served as chairman until 2014, and continued as director of his nearest club Kungsbacka Broncos. The final Skolars link in Scandinavia comes in the form of ex-player Warren Heilig (above), who founded Norway’s Rugby League Federation in 2008 after two years playing for the club. The New Zealander is credited for starting the sport in the country, the first Scandinavian country to partake in the 13-man code officially, and was the Scandinavian Development Manager for the RLEF between 2009 and 2014. He has since landed development positions at the NRL and New Zealand Warriors for his pioneering work in the region.