How a professional sport exists without a second grade competition to aid the development and fitness of players in 2018 is staggering but that is the situation as it stands with rugby league.
With the Super League season just days away, many coaches in charge of clubs in the competition have once more called for this to change. In fact, a survey conducted by League Express found that nine of the twelve bosses backed a compulsory reserve grade competition for all Super League clubs but, personally, I would go as far to suggest it should be compulsory for any full time professional rugby league club with certain benefits added to part time clubs who strive to participate in an effective and relevant reserves competition or league. Interestingly, the one coach who was against compulsory reserve grade rugby league was Leeds Rhinos’ Brian McDermott who himself suggested that the priority should be to keep youngsters in the game as they enter their mid teens. His reluctance to back the possibility of the second grade competition is perhaps strange with the Rhinos being one of a handful of clubs in Super League with exceptional academies and, therefore, a gluttony of youngsters with potential who may well benefit from reserves rugby.
However, following Hull FC and Warrington’s withdrawal of their reserve sides from this year’s competition in recent weeks, the Airlie Birds head coach Lee Radford is one of those who insisted it should be made compulsory. It could be viewed, then, that Hull’s withdrawal of their entry to the competition isn’t down to their lack of desire to run a team but instead shows their frustration that their Super League peers aren’t unanimously in favour of it nor do they commit to participating. Wigan’s Shaun Wane has outlined his view on the matter by saying that “I can’t comprehend how it doesn’t work at other clubs,” further adding that, while the Warriors’ reserves will have to play certain teams a few times, they will make the best of the opportunity. Both Castleford’s Daryl Powell and Wakefield’s Chris Chester supported Wane and stated that there must be a reserve competition with the 2017 Coach of the Year adding that “you’ve got players who don’t play, it’s terrible.”
Huddersfield’s Rick Stone, however, is unsure of the idea and suggests that, in order for a team to have a first team and reserve team, clubs would need “around 50 players.” While that may be a bit exaggerated, the point still stands – some clubs may not feel that they can financially have that many players on their books and wouldn’t want to expose young academy players to what could well be a bloodbath featuring experienced pros. The RFL’s chief executive Ralph Rimmer, on the other hand, explained the organisations position on the matter, saying that it is “an advocate of reserve grade and believes it is the best way to bring players through.” There can’t be many sports where the governing body doesn’t have the power to insist that clubs have a reserve competition but it is perhaps a demonstration of Super League clubs holding more power that they aren’t willing to commit to it and, therefore, it is unlikely to happen soon.
Reserve grade rugby league is likely to be a subject that rumbles on for the foreseeable future and, for all the talk of coaches and the RFL suggesting it must happen, it will take some strong leadership to initiate the process of setting up such a competition and that is perhaps something the yet to be appointed head of the RFL will look at doing when he or she takes up role.