DEFIANT chief executive Gary Hetherington insists the return of reserve grade football would “significantly weaken” Leeds Rhinos’ academy – a system that is providing players to aid their pursuit of an unprecedented treble.
The subject of reserve grade and its potential reintroduction has been on the agenda in the sport for some time now.
Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves, in particular, are vocal advocates of bringing back such a competition for the first time since 2012.
Currently, Super League clubs only have an Under-19s side below first-team level, meaning anyone over that age not selected at the top has to play on loan or on dual-registration with a lower division club or not at all.
Previously, senior squad members – either returning from injury or unable to force their way into the first team – could gain game time in the then Under-21s reserve grade as over-age players so they were guaranteed some football.
League leaders and Challenge Cup finalists Leeds, however, are against the idea of reviving it.
Wigan and Warrington have admitted that, given they are unable to vote any change through, that they are instead deep into plans to organise their own supplemented fixtures next season on top of the Under-19s competition.
The RFL are willing to help facilitate it and the likes of St Helens, Leigh Centurions, Salford Red Devils and Sheffield Eagles are all thought to be ready to take part.
However, when asked why he is against the reserve grade, Hetherington told The Yorkshire Post: “I am a totally, utterly, committed supporter of the reserve grade and we’ve got a terrific one – it’s called our academy.
“I think it is delivering everything we’d hoped it would – outstanding players like Ash Handley, Stevie Ward, Liam Sutcliffe, Josh Walters and Robbie Ward all coming in and getting an opportunity in our Super League team.
“Not only that, though, they are showing that they are capable of being Super League players.
“Our reserve grade is delivering and doing what it is exactly there for – to deliver players of the future for the Super League competition and, in many cases, for the Championship as well.
“I think it’s working better than we could have hoped.
“We’re now delivering a pretty strong academy – better than we’ve ever had before – and to supplement that with another team would actually significantly weaken that going forward, and also weaken the Championship, too.”
That is a strong statement from Hetherington given that Leeds’s Academy in the early Super League days produced legends of the game such as Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, who have all gone on to underpin their “golden decade” of success including six Super League titles.
However, the chief executive remains adamant that the current process works.
With Brett Delaney, Jimmy Keinhorst – currently flourishing at Super League level – Walters and Robbie Ward all having played with Hunslet Hawks in the Championship this year, too, there are positives.
Others would argue, though, that clubs have voted against a reserve grade competition for purely financial reasons and players past the age of 19 who have yet to fully mature could now be lost to the game entirely.
Warrington head coach Tony Smith has labelled the current system as leading to “Mediocre League rather than Super League”.
He cited the absurd ruling that saw Super League clubs needing to decide by July 24 whether players would stay on dual-registration for the rest of the campaign or return to their parent club.
Essentially, that meant some fringe players recalled, for fear of potential later injuries to first-team regulars perhaps, may not feature anywhere again in 2015.
But Hetherington insisted: “That’s a minor issue. You’d like to think the game in its wisdom can come up with a solution.
“But the RFL has a problem as it’s been torn. They are the governing body and have to do what is in the best interests for the sport.”
There is a Reserves Championship currently in operation, but it consists purely of non-Super League teams – Leigh, Dewsbury Rams, Featherstone Rovers, Sheffield and Keighley Cougars – many of whom could be involved in the plans for 2016.
Castleford Tigers have added Michael Channing to their 19-man squad for tomorrow night’s Super 8s visit of Warrington Wolves, hooker Paul McShane dropping out in the only change.
Leeds-born England No 9 Michael McIlorum has signed a new deal with Wigan until 2019.