Hemel Stags prepare for life in a northern town

hemel

Hemel Stags have been at Pennine Way since 1981

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.

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