Rugby league goes back to the future with Reserve Championship

06-First-Fixture-Victoria-Park-Arena-U16-v-Wigan

Victoria Park, home of Warrington Wolves’ reserve team

OF ALL the off-season signings in Super League, the two which were probably overlooked the most were Tom Connick and Dave Llewellyn joining St Helens on 12-month contracts.
On the face of it, Saints’ decision to bring in a local primary school teacher whose senior playing experience amounts to spells with Coventry Bears, Oxford and London Skolars, and a 33-year-old former Rochdale Hornets centre might seems more quirky than particularly notable.
But the signings of Connick and Llewellyn are worth noting in the sense that their presence will add valuable experience to the St Helens team playing in the re-launched Reserve Championship.
After three years in abeyance, reserve grade returned to domestic rugby league back in February with the new nine-team Championship comprising St Helens and fellow Super League outfits Hull FC, Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors, plus five from Kingston Press Championship and League One – Dewsbury Rams, Featherstone Rovers, Halifax and Sheffield Eagles from the former, and Keighley Cougars from the latter.
Reserve rugby was brought back at the behest of many clubs feeling the limited dual-registration system was not the best way for those players too old and too experienced to feature in the Under-19 Academy competition.
The new Reserve Championship is almost a return to the days of the Alliance league, which at its peak featured three divisions and cup competitions, along with first-team sides of Hemel Stags and Blackpool Gladiators at various points in its history.
But while many feel this is a small step in the right direction, the actual format of this revamped second team league has drawn criticism. Indeed, Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan was quoted as branding it a “shambles” – particularly due to fearing the sides from the lower divisions would not provide a stiff enough challenge.
“We needed competitive games for our talented young players and fringe first-team players,” Lenagan told the Wigan Evening Post ahead of the new season.
“We believe that the RFL had two or three attempts to do that and I have to praise (RFL director of performance and coaching) John Roberts, he did very well trying to put together a schedule, but it proved impossible to suit everyone’s needs.”
The fixture list too has been a bone of contention, with large gaps at later points during the season for most clubs meaning the competition is not – as yet – providing regular, competitive rugby for those players starting to make their way in senior rugby or those who are not first-team regulars.
It is an issue which is affecting other professional team sport in this country though. Just this week in the round-ball game, there was talk of Premier League B teams entering the Football League’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy to provide experience at senior level those players are missing out on since the abandonment of competitive reserve team football in favour of an under-21 league.
Over in the 15-man code, the Aviva Premiership operates an A League which is contested between all 12 of its member clubs, split into Northern and Southern conferences with the top team in each meeting in a final to decide the overall winner.
This too, though, does not provide regular action, with only the occasional fixture on a Monday night. The A League is effectively closed to only Premiership teams as well, with those players under 23 who need regular senior action being able to be dual-registered with Championship and National League club, similar to rugby league.
Meanwhile, county cricket’s Second XI Championship continues to rumble on barely noticed by even aficionados of the sport. At least though, it does provide regular matches for the players, with a full fixture list of multi-day, limited overs and Twenty20 cricket.
That is not to say the new Reserve Championship will not go on to be successful, yet it must be given time to grow rather than simply being hastily written off and disregarded.
The clubs involved have their part to play in this as well and could perhaps learn from the boom times the reserve game enjoyed in football back in the mid to late-1990s.
Leicester City led the way by offering free tickets to school children in the city, along with have pre-match entertainment and proper colour programmes, with matches against Premier League teams who regularly had one or two big names featuring who were either out of the senior side or returning from injury.
Sunderland and Preston North End were among those who enjoyed boom times too, although the formation of the Premier League reserve competition and the decision to take games to smaller non-League venues rather than the usual home ground contributed to the decline.
The latter is something which could perhaps affect reserve rugby league’s appeal. St Helens and the lower division sides will all utilise their normal homes, but Warrington’s matches are at Victoria Park, Hull play at Hull Ionians RUFC and Wigan’s home games are at the snappily-named Ad Options Community Stadium.
Not that these facilities are anything other than perfectly adequate, but at the same time it does not lend a sense that there is anything worth going to see in the eyes of the casual observer or impressionable youngster.
Those clubs who ground-share with football teams – who are prissy enough about egg chasers ruining their precious pitches – may find it difficult to accommodate reserve games on their own ground, but there a few reasons others could not.
Perhaps the scheduling of games needs to be looked at too. Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday nights, for example, may be better to bring in a crowd rather than on a weekend or Thursday or Friday when there is Super League on television or a programme of other fixtures.
And if you want to give experience against battle-hardened veterans to the young players coming out of the academies, why not form a team comprising out-of-contract players, amateurs who have fallen out of the professional game or been overlooked, and non-heartland players who have not been scouted?
The team could even be based somewhere like St George’s Park – where the England rugby league team call home alongside their footballing counterparts – or elsewhere in the Midlands or South of England to open up opportunities for new players.
Maybe we are getting too far ahead of ourselves there though. For now, the aim has to be ensuring the Reserve Championship becomes as vibrant and competitive as it can be.

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