Last summer, Lancashire RFU announced that 24 of it’s clubs would be dropping out of the pyramidal RFU league structure in order to form an insular, breakaway league, with many citing increased travel (and the impact this had on expenses) as the primary factor. Previously, sides from Manchester had been forced to travel to Cumbria to play, and this was deemed an untenable situation.
According to Lancashire, the decision was taken “at the behest of several clubs,” and as a result, “a two league structure has been developed to accommodate these clubs and assist them in playing more local rugby against clubs within Lancashire RFU.”
This revolt, unparalleled in recent English rugby history, had echoes of the great schism of the 19th century, when the Northern Unions broke from the central body, and rugby league was born. Having formed two alternative leagues, the ADM Premier and Shield Divisions, rather than an alternative sport, this time around it must be admitted the rift is far less dramatic.
Indeed, ‘revolt’ is a complete exaggeration. This was a carefully considered decision, taken in order to aid recruitment, help encourage and retain existing players, and ensure the continuation of competitive rugby in the area. It was also a reaction to the current state of grassroots rugby, characterised as it is by falling participation rates and financial difficulties.
In these aims, one year on, the move appears to have been a success, In The Loose can report, having spoken to a number of senior individuals within the relevant Lancashire clubs. According to Didsbury Toc H RFC Director of Rugby James Peacock, “it’s proved a beneficial move at this stage,” a sentiment echoed by Trafford MV RFCC First Team Captain Pat Eccles, “we have found it to be a pleasant change, with competitive games week in week out.”
A cursory glance at last seasons league table reveals the competitive nature of the league. The top four teams (Widnes, Oldham, West Park and Didsbury) finished within eight points of one another. Furthermore, the geographical proximity of the clubs, with the longest journey time around an hour, has allowed local rivalries to flourish, encouraging player engagement and increasing crowd gates.
For clubs like West Park SH, Wigan and Liverpool St. Helens, this has added an extra dimension, and the situation is similar in South Manchester, where Didsbury, Heaton Moor and Trafford are all located.
Financially, the move has also been advantageous. President of Liverpool St. Helens, Raymond French, emphasised the impact not having to regularly pay between £500 and £700 for a coach to Cumbria has had on the club. Moreover, local derbies mean greater crowds, and greater crowds draw more money at the bar, benfitting the club in this regard also.
He also added that, in the present climate, “if you want to go up, you have to pay players.” This stark realism sums up the dilemma faced by many clubs at the minute, how to balance ambition, a commitment to the local community and finances? One potential disadvantage of the ADM league is the lack of promotion into Level 6, but for his club and many others, this is simply not economically viable, and many would question whether it was advisable at all.
The Lancashire league seems in this sense a response to the semi-professional, hyper-competitive (and some would say unsustainable) current RFU structure, designed as it is around helping local teams find a good, stable, competitive level to play at.
Nevertheless, for the more ambitious amongst them, promotion is still an aim in the long run. Both Didsbury and Trafford expressed a desire, in the long term, to establish some sort of pathway upwards. Players are competitive animals, and the motivation of promotion remains a strong pull, with rejoining the RFU structure an option they would like to remain open. It remains to be seen whether the league’s top players will remain content if they feel their side is not progressing a few years down the line.
After one year however, all who we spoke to were hugely satisfied with the experiment, reporting positively regarding the impact on recruiting local players, and saying they had enjoyed the season more generally. In Lancashire, it must be noted, clubs have to contend with their location in the heartlands of rugby league, adding an extra dimension of difficulty when recruiting and retaining players,
Ultimately, that is what rugby is about, enjoying playing the game at local level, with the added social element geographical closeness brings, and in this regard, Lancashire seems to be leading the way. Sadly however, with fears of clubs repeating fixtures up to three times, and a lack of opponents outside of the local area, it may have left Cumbria behind in the process.
Written by Joe Ronan
(Image: Trafford MV)