Why Halifax have ditched reserve grade

In recent years you’d struggle to find a club that has been as supportive of reserve grade rugby than Halifax.

The Championship part-timers put many of their full-time, Super League peers to shame by financing a second-team to compete against the small number of clubs that had followed their lead.

It came as no surprise when the RFL announced the relaunch of reserve grade that Fax were one of only three teams outside the top flight to be included.

But it came as a great surprise when they announced a few weeks later they had withdrawn their entry and had disbanded their reserve grade side.

Unsurprisingly, money was the main factor in the decision.

“It was going to cost us somewhere in the region of £60,000,” head coach Simon Grix revealed.

“This was a decision based on finances. In the past, Fax Trust, one of our supporter clubs, have put in a lot of money. It has varied year on year, then the club has put the rest of the money in. The money hasn’t been given to me to spend on the squad, it’s been kept back and is the club’s money to spend elsewhere or to pay for something else. It is unfortunate, but that’s the reality. It’s where we find ourselves.

“With people at the club trying to run it as a business, they were looking at a return on investment and it didn’t add up.”

On the face of it, the argument over return on investment doesn’t add up. Since the beginning of 2016, 11 players who started in reserve grade went on to play for the first-team. Among them was Nick Rawsthorne, who is now at Hull KR and Huddersfield Giants’ new signing Chester Butler. Brandon Moore, one of the Championship’s best hookers, is another, while Elliot Morris and Challenge Cup hero James Woodburn-Hall are another two success stories.

Collectively, they made over 250 first-grade appearances since the beginning of 2016, seven of them made international debuts and they picked up wins over St Helens and Warrington.

So what’s changed?

“Before now, we’ve been a niche. But it’s different now that Super League clubs are all running a reserve grade.

“We have had some lads come through and Martin Gonzales and Steve Greenwood worked hard to get those blokes and you can’t take away from that.

“There’s lads at most Super League clubs now who before reserve grade would have been looking for a move to the Championship, but they aren’t there for us now as they’ll stay attached with the Super League team for another year. So those pearls we picked up before who had come out of Super League systems like Brandon aren’t there for us to pick up anymore.

“So the quality of the team we were going to be able to have based on that wasn’t going to be competitive. For our lads who were playing first team, were they going to be able to be in a team that would allow them to develop and get better to do what they needed to do to get back to first-team? I thought not. The finances side was the club’s issue and to my knowledge, the cost of it outweighed what were going to be small benefits.”

Instead, Fax have gone for a different approach. Last week they announced a new three-way partnership with Huddersfield Giants and Hunslet. Fax will dual-reg with both clubs, while they and Hunslet will provide players for the Giants’ reserve grade.

“When the decision was made about reserve grade we didn’t have a dual-reg deal as Castleford had gone with York, so we had nothing lined up anyway.

“But we got my brother on loan and Chester Butler went there, I have a few close friends at Huddersfield in Luke Robinson and Andy Kelly and it’s just developed.

“Now, by going dual-reg with their first-team and reserve team, our players not selected for the first-team can go and play in a team full of players on their way to Super Leauge or already there, or play men’s rugby with Hunslet. I think it is an effective way to keep the lads match fit and an opportunity to keep playing every week. It could be win-win for everyone.

“You know the disadvantages of dual-reg and if the team at the top suffers it goes all the way down, but we still have the reserves at the Giants and that will improve our players, and more than that I’ll be watching those games, we’ll be scouting the matches and we might identify other players who are looking to drop in the Championship.

“Financially it makes sense for the Super Leauge club as they don’t have to sign up as many lads. With the money potentially dropping after 2021, for us to be able to get a quality of player for our club personally it makes sense. Fev have been doing it with Leeds for years and they’ve had success. I do think more will jump on the model we’re using in the next few years.

“So I think it’s a good move, it’s change and people don’t like change so everyone will be a bit afraid at first, but it is what it is.”

Halifax is one of the sport’s great hotbeds. Jake Connor, Gareth Widdop, Niall Evalds and Morgan Smithies are among the current Super League players from the town.

Grix accepts that, in an ideal world, clubs like Halifax still need to be developing local players and bringing them into their system.

However, he thinks there are wider issues that also need to be addressed to ensure that’s feasible, while money is once again a factor.

“It’s a very difficult one because ultimately it all comes down to money, and the reality is that this is a club like many others that lives year to year.

“If we had a magic wand we’d have our own training centre and run the business from there with all your facilities. That helps you create better links with your community clubs. Being full-time is a massive one, having full-time development staff is a big thing in getting people interested you. And if you’re better on the pitch the interest grows off it. But until we have our own assets and the means to do so, it will be a slow process.

“I think we do an OK job in the community based on what we have to do it. An example of one problem is that junior clubs train in an evening, but so do we. So getting contact with these kids is difficult.

“For us, it’s about trying to get a good, young, hometown squad. That will take time.

“We don’t miss lads who are from Halifax, we just can’t get them because the Super League clubs have the resource, but we want to tout them back here so we have that hometown connection in this club.

“The cream is cherry-picked, Siddal, King Cross, Elland, Illingworth, it goes on, these clubs have produced a lot of players that play in Super League currently, but the problem is when those top lads go off to these systems, the lads they played with lose interest, they might start working and then they end up not playing altogether. The first thing to address is keeping them in the game.

“Whether you could have a development squad to keep those interested is something to consider, but we need to make sure there is enough interest and appeal in the club for them to want that opportunity. If we could have a development team sourced totally of Halifax lads there would be a chance to grow it. It’s finding how we can get there while keeping the money down.”

For now, Grix hopes Fax Trust continues to raise money for another cause, while Fax1 will continue in its efforts to raise money to provide a bigger playing budget.

“I know Fax Trust is the supporters trust so they support and they should still be involved and hopefully still enjoy what they do for the cause but I’ve no idea what purpose they want their fundraising to go to.

“I don’t know if they have a say because if you’re raising money for the club then it should be for the club I suppose, but if they want a purpose that’s something they need to let us know about.”