Anger justified after clubs miss out on elite academy licences – Peter Smith

CRAIG LINGARD, the Batley Bulldogs coach, summed it up.

Tuesday, 25th May 2021, 4:45 am
Batley Bulldogs head coach Craig Lingard, left, with Halifax Panthers head coach Simon Grix, believes the rugby league community has been united by the RFL announcement of academy licences. Picture: Ed Sykes/SWpix.com.

Commenting on social media after last week’s announcement of the elite academy licences, Lingard wrote: “Well if nothing else the RFL have managed to unite the rugby league community this weekend. The support of the academy systems seems to be unanimous. Maybe that was the ploy all along! Well played RFL, well played. That’s how I’d be spinning it anyway!”

What Lingard was referring to was an outpouring of dismay – and in some cases anger – from players following the news Castleford Tigers Hull KR and Bradford Bulls have been denied a licence to run an elite academy from next year to 2027.

That doesn’t mean they are barred from running an under-19s – side, but none of them can compete in the top competition. They will, instead, be allowed to operate development academies – run in conjunction with further education institutions – and play in the winter and spring colleges competition.

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Castleford Tigers' Mend-A-Hose Jungle. Picture: Tony Johnson.

The RFL could have awarded a maximum of 12 licences and the application process stipulated one would go to a club in France and two to “Emerging Affinity Areas” – in other words, outside the sport’s heartlands.

In the end, only 10 licences were issued, to Catalans Dragons, Huddersfield Giants, Hull FC, Leeds Rhinos, London Broncos, Newcastle Thunder, St Helens, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors.

The state of play at academy level may not seem the most exciting topic, but it matters. Castleford is a hotbed of rugby league talent, but the decision means Tigers will, for the next five seasons at least, be unable to attract the best young players.

Instead, the best ones will go to a club with an elite academy, others may switch codes, stay at their community club or possibly give up the game. Cas lads, naturally, want to play for Cas.

According to Tigers, feedback on their application suggests the fact they are one of a number of clubs in a small geographical area counted against them, as did being “bottom of the league for producing first-team players” since 2014.

There’s not much Tigers can do about the former and the latter doesn’t necessarily mean their academy is failing. Cas have had some fallow years recently in terms of youth development, but that sometimes happens and since the start of last season local products Brad Graham, Sam Hall, Bailey Hodgson, Jacques O’Neill and Lewis Peachey have tasted first-team rugby for Tigers.

The sport in this country needs to expand its player base and cutting the number of academies seems a strange way to do that. The opposite would seem the more sensible solution.

The counter-argument is there are not enough players to fill more than 10 or 12 academy sides and attempting to do so would mean youngsters being taken out of the community game just to make up the numbers.

Another concern for Tigers is the fear licensing could return in Betfred Super League.

If that ever happened, the 10 teams awarded an elite academy licence would certainly fancy their chances, but being outside that group would count against Tigers.

Castleford issued a statement after the academy licences announcement insisting the club was “devastated” to miss out.

They must feel the time and money put in over the past few years has been wasted and this is why the decision caused such anguish.

Going back to Lingard’s comment, it is good to see players, past and present, voicing an opinion and the Bulldogs coach has a point.

In typical rugby league fashion, the announcement distracted from some positive news, the return of fans after 14 months of behind-closed-doors matches.

But now stars of the game are voicing an opinion, the RFL should make use of that. Many of those who commented on last week’s announcement came into the professional game through community clubs and then the academy system.

The governing body would win some friends – and maybe learn a few things – if they asked them what they think is the best way forward.

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