STUDENTS of rugby league history will be familiar with the story of London Highfield.
The first professional club in the Capital played sole season at the White City Stadium in 1933/34 following the relocation of Wigan Highfield – later going on to live a transient life as Liverpool Stanley/City, Huyton, Runcorn Highfield and, finally, Prescot Panthers – only for the venture to be not deemed viable by the owners of the ground.
One of the most notable things about the team was that, along with playing all home games under floodlights on a Wednesday evening so as not to clash with football and rugby union matches, they continued to train at the Wigan club’s former home on Tunstall Lane and commuted to London for matches.
Given how all but one of Highfield’s players were based in the north of England, such an arrangement was understandable. However, it might seem odd if a southern team were to do likewise in the 21st Century.
Not so in the case of Hemel Stags though, who announced last week they were relocating their training base 170 miles north to Crown Flatt as part of a partnership with Kingstone Press Championship side Dewsbury Rams.
The words “innovative” and “groundbreaking” were both used in the press release announcing what is, effectively, a merger of the two clubs – although the Stags, who have been around in one form or another since 1981, were eager to assert the fact they will retain their identity and autonomy, and will continue to play at their Pennine Way.
Quite how they claim to retain their autonomy when the coaching and playing staff of the two clubs will be integrated is anyone’s guess, and the announcement has hardly been well-received in their home town.
A petition was swiftly set up by supporters to voice their displeasure and has already attracted nearly 900 signatures in a week. That might not seem like a lot, but bear in mind this is a club which have struggled to attract 200 fans to home games in a season which saw them finish bottom of the pile in Kingstone Press League One.
Hemel CEO Bob Brown was quick to defend the “major strategic development”, citing problems with getting their squad of players from the amateur levels in the south of England up to the standard required to be competitive in the third tier of semi-professional rugby.
“This season we launched a deliberate strategy to recruit community and student players from within our local catchment area of the southern M1/A1 axis,” said
“But despite having between 35 and 45 players regularly in pre-season training it soon became clear that the step up from Community Rugby League in the South to League 1 was premature for many of the players.
“The move to Dewsbury will give the Stags access to a much more professional environment, in which to develop their playing and coaching personnel, while placing the club close to a large pool of experienced Rugby League players.”
Sound reasoning, you might think. But as that great modern-day philosopher Homer J Simpson once said: “I agree with you, Marge, in theory. In theory, communism works – in theory.”
How many of those southern-based players will be willing, or indeed able, to make the journey to Dewsbury for training twice a week on pay which it can be reasonably assumed would barely cover their travelling expenses?
And if Hemel do want to take advantage of being in the sport’s heartland and sign up ready-made League One-standard northern-based players, then what does that mean for the much-vaunted attempts to spread the sport in the south?
It is worth mentioning the club are not turning their back on their home town and only this week, adverts were placed in the rugby league trade press advertising for a development officer to continue the good work the Stags have done down the years spreading the word about the Greatest Game in commuter belt Hertfordshire.
The likes of Wigan Warriors’ Dan Sarginson and Hull Kingston Rovers’ Kieran Dixon have both come from the school development programme in Hemel Hempstead, but they have still had to head north to fulfil their rugby league ambitions.
Those from the town who aspire to pull on a Hemel Stags jersey in the paid ranks and perhaps progress from there will have to do the same now though – and whichever way the club try to paint that in a positive light, it can hardly be considered a cause for celebration or a sign of progress.
STUDENTS of rugby league history will be familiar with the story of London Highfield.
WHEN the 1966-67 Northern Rugby Football League season kicked off in its then-traditional late summer start, few people could have envisaged how the sport would be changed forever by the time the campaign concluded the following May.
Wakefield Trinity beating title-holders St Helens in a replayed Championship play-off final and Featherstone Rovers (pictured above) belying their small-town status to win the Challenge Cup for the first time – beating Barrow at Wembley, no less – gives modern observes some idea of how different English domestic rugby league was half a century ago.
But there were also very real concerns over declining attendances, the parlous financial state of some clubs and how to improve the sport as a spectacle. Plus ca change, as the old saying goes.
Enter RFL secretary Bill Fallowfield, who had been leading the charge to alter the rules of rugby league since being appointed to his position in 1946.
History takes a somewhat dim view of Fallowfield’s 29-year spell at the helm of the RFL. From the outset, the former Cambridge University and Northampton rugby union player seemed intent to shape the sport more along the lines of the 15-man code, including several bizarre attempts to replace the play-the-ball with a method of releasing the ball in the tackle.
But arguably his lasting legacy is one successful change to the Laws of the Game which is not only still with us today but is also one of rugby league’s most distinguishing features – and that is the limited-tackle rule.
One of the major causes of concern during this era were how teams were increasingly able to dominate possession and therefore kill games by simply not passing or kicking, with the only option being for the defending team to risk giving away a penalty at the play-the-ball in a desperate effort to win possession back.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this came in the 1951 Championship semi-final when, with his Workington Town side winning 8-5 and down to 12 men, Gus Risman simply ordered his side not to pass or kick for the final quarter-of-an-hour.
Having abandoned his attempts to have the play-the-ball changed, Fallowfield took inspiration from American football’s four-downs-followed-by-a-handover rule and, in a rare example of international co-operation on changes to the Laws, proposed the four-tackle rule at a meeting of the International Board.
The New Zealanders proposed having a scrum at the completion of each set and agreement on the matter led to the change being approved. Now all that was needed was to see how it panned out in an actual game.
Fortunately, The RFL had the perfect competition to trial this variation in – the BBC Two Floodlit Trophy. Not only was it still a relatively new competition, being in only its second season, but the fact one match each round was televised on the Beeb’s second channel on a Tuesday evening meant a wider response to the new rule could be garnered.
The four-tackle rule was enacted in the Trophy in time for the first qualifying round in October, with it becoming immediately obvious it had the desired effect of encouraging attacking play and making the game more exciting.
Flushed with this success, The RFL then rushed through an edict decreeing it could be used in Championship matches as well, but with the caveat that both teams must agree to it.
As Tony Collins points out in Rugby League In Twentieth Century Britain though, this haphazard approach was predictably chaotic. Leeds, for example, chose to play under the four-tackle rule against Doncaster one week but then refused to do so against Cup holders St Helens.
Realising their folly, The RFL simply announced that from October 31, the new rule would apply to all matches and it was adopted in Australia for the 1967 season, which saw St George’s run of 11 straight NSW Premiership triumphs come to an end.
Six years after its introduction, four tackles were extended to the six we know today in a bid to allow more structured attacking play to develop rather than the somewhat panicked approach which had become the norm and it remains that way to this day.
Fallowfield’s near-three-decade tenure as RFL secretary may not be looked kindly on, but there can be no doubt he did change the game. Even if – perhaps thankfully – it was not in the way he had first imagined.