Is Rugby League really in freefall?

I was half way through writing my next post, a post on facilities v success i.e. do 1st class facilities facilitate 1st class performance and yet another hammer drops within Rugby League. Salford have a fan-based squad-builder fundraiser set up to help buy players. I’m not knocking the actual act and it’s honourable of the fans to try and help. I just can’t recall ever seeing this happen within other professional sports’ clubs. A quick search provided zero results other than Portsmouth fans crowdfunding £270 000 to buy their Academy training ground to make sure that it would remain theirs rather than continue renting.

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Then Leigh. Pay Super League contracts to Championship players without having the money to do so. And when they don’t get the predicted finish and related prize money? “We can’t afford to pay you, we’ll allow you to go to other clubs…..”. And this goes on, year after year. It’s what Robbie Hunter-Paul called rolling the dice. And that’s exactly what it is, hoping for a 6 and rolling a 1.

Would any other business ever even contemplate the act, let alone act on it.

“Mr CEO, we have a chance to go from being a medium sized enterprise to an international sized enterprise in a single year – it would mean our turnover would rise from £200 000 a year to £1.2 Million” “Brilliant, how do we do it?” “We’re going to put all our money into Gold and hope the the price of Gold rises” “But what if the price of Gold goes down?” “It won’t. But IF it did, well, we’d have to sack all our employees and we’ll pretty much have to close the business” “Could we not just work hard on our infrastructure and help our employees develop, grow our customer base and get to that point over, say, 5 years?” “Yes, but where would the fun in that be?” “Mr General Manager, Please leave my office and remove your belongings from your desk…”

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And that’s what happening!

I’m not comparing Super League to the Premiership, I’m comparing it more to League 2. Northampton, Bury, Port Vale? All sustainable clubs. Exeter, Crewe, Yeovil Town? All had their up’s and down’s but haven’t nearly gone to the wall. So is this just something Rugby League has to accept or should the RFL do something about it.

That’s point 1.

Point 2 is should this be the RFL’s number 1 priority? Because as it stands, the game is being pushed and pulled from all directions. I know my voice carries no weight, but I like to think that I’m pretty down to Earth and have some common sense (many would disagree with that, however). And so here is my thoughts on how Rugby League could take big steps forward and I think it may resonate with quite a few people who I have talked with about the situation. By the way, I am very open to different views and any reasoned arguments as to why these views may not work are very much welcomed – so this is very much a starting point for discussion rather than a point by point resolution!

So we start as a 12 year old playing rugby for the local club with his mates, who turn out week after week and love just playing. These boys play together for years and are best of mates and at 14 and 15 start to get noticed as good players. 4 or 5 of the team have developed into very good / potentially great players and get noticed by a few professional clubs as being as such. At 15, these 4 or 5 of the players from this team get offered to join academies  and are, of course, over-joyed at this. They go off and start their journeys in the professional game. The 12 or 13 lads who didn’t get picked up, that were part of a winning team last year, have just had their best 5 players taken away and all of a sudden start to lose. And they weren’t good enough for academies. So what’s the point. “There are other things starting to interest me, so I’m not doing this anymore”. (Note 1: There is a big drop in playing numbers at age 16. Under 16 teams fold, the leagues get smaller, the same teams play the other same teams and it gets boring).

Let’s turn to the lads who joined the academies. They get some fantastic coaching, they have some education, they train in a professional environment. They play other academies and they move up the academy ladder. They may get to play some representative games. Then at 19, they don’t get given a professional contract – that’s not to say they aren’t good enough, but they just won’t be getting a professional contract post academy. A few may move to lower division clubs. Most have the option of returning to their amateur club after 4 years of being at a professional club or giving up because they didn’t make it. Those that do swallow their pride and return to their amateur club (many won’t do that) suddenly get to play big, aggressive, fully matured men. (Note 2: They have only ever played other 18 or 19 year olds. They have never played Mad Mike McNoTeeth from West Oldham Bulldogs who’s sole job is to make players think twice about carrying it off their own line. This is a culture shock, and guess what, this 19 year old thinks Rugby League isn’t as fun anymore). And numbers at this age drop again.

From here, we move up to the professional clubs, League 1, Championship and Super League. Squads in League 1 and Championship rarely number more than 30 and if you are contracted, you cannot play amateur rugby. Therefore say 6 have injuries, you’re stuck with 6 or 7 players not being selected week in, week out. These players say that they want to play and their only option is to therefore get put out on loan or Dual reg to other clubs who then have players not playing. Who then get disillusioned, and who end up not playing.

And the playing squads get smaller, so clubs bring in quota spot players. And the quota spots take the place of current players, who then go out on loan, who then replace lower league players, who then don’t play…..bada bing bada boom Yada yada yada.

It’s not hard to see how consecutive RFL decisions, all made with good intentions, have formed pretty much a perfect storm of downward spiral.

“So how can we stop this?” The crowds yell. Well, in my eyes, it’s pretty easy. But it would take a brave and strong ruling body to take bold action. I understand the research and the rationale behind the ‘Embed the Pathway’, sorry, ‘England Talent Pathway’, cough, £100k to change a name, cough, I have sat in the development days and meetings many times. But I don’t think the junior academies work for Rugby League. Definitely keep the senior academies and link them with a reserves team. YES, we’re all saying it!! RESERVES. Because here is the ‘Easy Teen Pathway’: (Note 3 – Please don’t spend any amount of money changing a name to this….)

We start as a 12 year old playing with his mates. At 14 and 15 the team have 4 or 5 good players, and they can play with other good or potentially very good players in a ‘area development’ team, perhaps called a ‘service area team’. These teams can take the best players and let them play against other areas best players and still play for their amateur club with their mates. At 17 – 19, Professional teams could invite players that they see with talent or potential to play in their Academies. Should they not be getting game time, they could be released back to their amateur clubs but still remain or train or be involved in the academy. A certain amount of communication would be required between amateur and professional club here, mind, perhaps this would be what could be termed ‘a relationship’ between amateur and professional clubs. Perhaps even develop this into ‘a link’. Mad, I know, but he who dares to dream.

As their time comes to an end, or when the coaching team sees fit, the Senior Academy lads progress to a Reserve team, where they get to play a better standard of player and develop their strength of both body and mind. Keeping the ‘relationship’ going with the local amateur teams, the Reserve team could provide opportunities for local amateur players to play, however, this would require the RFL to allow ‘trialists’ to play in the reserves teams. This could cause massive problems, as it is clear to all involved in Rugby League that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should an amateur player be allowed to play at a professional club and that a meaningless £25 a month contract should be in place for professional club reserve players to prevent that player playing amateur club rugby, as this could help him develop as a player. Oh, hang on. No, that sounds ridiculous. But that is what is happening at some clubs who are trying to develop reserve team players. Due to the ‘voluntary’ nature of current reserve team games, some contracted players could be playing as little as 6 games a season, and are not allowed back to their amateur clubs even if they haven’t played a game in a month. It would mean that players have to be managed to make sure they don’t play too many games, but this could help develop the pro / amateur club ‘Relationship’ even further.

And then, guess what? a few players shine in the Reserves and get 1st team game time. And everyone thinks ‘wow, these home grown lads are good’ and we can now give them a proper contract and we might be able to use the quota spots more effectively and the game as a whole may benefit.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think it’s that difficult, it just needs a strong leadership and a buy in from other parties, such as BARLA, for the good of the whole game, rather than a vanity project with self-promotion as the main motivation…..Over to you, RFL.

And we’re off.

So here we are, Round 20 of the BetFred Championship. Toronto are currently 7 points clear at the top of the table and have confirmed their place in the middle 8’s. A win this week would see us awarded the League Leaders Shield.

My family have been here for 3 weeks and the sun is shining. A lot. It seems surreal that we no longer have a home in England and that Claire sold my car whilst I wasn’t there as I wouldn’t be needing it again.

‘What about when I go back to England for the middle 8’s?’

‘I didn’t think about that…….’

Anyway, everything is as good as it could be and whilst trying not to think about it, there is a little cloudy patch at the back of my head niggling at me, letting me know that in 11 games time I will be setting up for my last game with the Wolfpack for a while. Even though the journey hasn’t finished yet, I can safely say that this has easily been my best experience in Rugby to date. A big testament to how the club has been run. I genuinely see the future of Rugby League including several North American clubs in a North American / European conference style league. I understand that anyone that hasn’t experienced the fervour over here will be sceptical. And I understand that some feel that expansion should begin in the UK. I’m not going to bang on about it as mostly every player / fan / official that has made the journey has gone home buzzing about where Rugby League could and maybe, should end up. It’s easy for those who haven’t been to throw disparaging or derogatory comments. But those who previously have, and then have visited, have very often changed their tune.

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So I now have to start looking towards my travels post-season and what I will be doing to fill my time. Although there’s the children to look after and home school, I’m going to make the trip a learning experience for myself. As we visit different countries, I’m going to look to visit different sporting teams to see how different teams, in different sports, utilise and perform their coaching and analysis. It’s a journey of development and one that, when I think about it, is an amazing opportunity to develop my own expertise and knowledge. We will be looking to visit at least 5 different continents and I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of anyone that has had such an opportunity and now I can’t wait to start looking at   which teams we’ll be near, which teams I’ve got contacts in and which sports may be worthwhile having a look at. It’s a whole new adventure in itself that will benefit me massively in the long run!

It would seem that the last 2 years with the Wolfpack was just the beginning….

A New Dawn….

Okay, this is more of an apology to myself. When I started my blog, I desperately wanted not to be one of those bloggers whose posts tail off and die. There is always time to write a couple of paragraphs, always time to note down a couple of thoughts. But life got the better of me and I tailed off just as things got interesting…

In October 2017, I joined Toronto Wolfpack as their Performance Analyst on a full time contract. As part of the contract, I was also to coach Manchester Metropolitan University’s Rugby League team. Toronto and Manchester Metropolitan had just announced an amazing partnership that would see Toronto be based and train at the Universities world-class facility at Platt Lane and the University’s Rugby League team also trained and played there.

Everything went brilliantly, Toronto were playing well, the University team were playing well. It was all going according to plan. Toronto were top of the league and the University team got into the promotion playoffs. Then the bombshell dropped….

My wife and I had talked about me travelling with the team when we went to play our home games in Toronto. Due to our ground having renovations, we were to be in Toronto for 8 or 9 weeks. A long time without your family. We considered them coming over for a while but school holidays and Claire’s work just didn’t add up.

My wife runs her own business, babyballet. It has expanded from the UK to Australia and New Zealand. She had also had enquiries from some dance teachers in other countries and Claire explained that she would love to go and visit these counties with a view to further expansion. One of these countries was Canada and soon enough the idea had formed about us taking the kids out of school and going on a ‘world’ tour. The more we talked, the more excited we got and said ‘why not?’

And that was the bombshell. I now had to make a decision about going on a world tour and showing my children sites they would only ever get to see in textbooks or staying in, what I believe, is one of the best analysis jobs in sport! I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have to choose between 2 amazing choices, work or family. I suppose deep down I always knew that family would come first…

I discussed the ‘predicament’ with the management at Toronto and they were really supportive. It was an opportunity that I can’t turn down but one thing that I had always maintained was that it wasn’t going to happen until the season had ended.

And so there we have it. We’ve been back in Toronto for two weeks now and tomorrow, Family O’Connor arrive after renting our home and selling everything that we can’t bring with us to begin the first leg of our journey – 2 months in Canada.

Fitness v Skill

You’re coming up to pre-season. You start to think about the squad you’ve assembled or inherited. Your mind wanders off into visions of the final game and holding up the League trophy and then a night of, no, wait,  a whole weekend of celebrations….*

And then you’re back on the ground with a bump. Are they as good as you imagine? Could they really be as good as you imagine? Do they need just that little bit of bit of luck to bring the dream to reality? Do they actually need a lot of luck to bring the dream to reality? Should we go for the fittest team in the league?

And that’s the moment right there – where your league leaders dreams are shattered. As soon as you think about the being the fittest team in the league, it means that you fear that their skill wont get them through…

But can the fittest team also be the most skillful? Do they need to be? Can a more skillful team beat a fitter team? Should you, as a coach, ensure a reasonable approach to both?

I’m asking more questions than I’m getting answers to here. It’s played out on a weekly basis where the favourite team in a game of rugby are held out for the first 20 to 30 minutes by determination and effort but as the lesser side start to tire, the favourites over-run them and the free-flowing scoring starts. Cup matches, where one team is a few leagues below the other, often plays out the same scenario. The lower league team surprises the so called ‘better’ team with it’s tenacity and grit but in the end the higher team just over-power them. Is this better skill or better fitness and can either provide a winning margin over the other.

I’m asking because there are coaches out there currently in their ‘pre-season’ phase and I’ve already witnessed some of the bodies left prone on the ground after climbing ‘Scammy Steps’ and hitting the Shibden Park sledging hill. Those who know, know…….

Scammonden Dam Steps and Shibden Park hills

Does this all-out, lung-busting, throw-up on the floor routine actually make sense? Or should you try to adopt a more game-centric approach where exercise bursts are generally 30 seconds to a minute long and where the entire time playing the game is around 22 minutes per half in Rugby League and even less in Union. Do you train your body to hit it hard for a minute and a half and then recover thereby training your body to get used to the frequent bursts or do you just go all out to try and make your whole body fitter? Personally, I think there is room for both – ‘a little of a lot goes a long way’ as my old headteacher used to say.

Do you put this fitness acclimation above skill training? Surely, if you’ve had 6 to 7 weeks off, the old handling and kicking is going to be a little rusty, is it not? Again, I think a little bit of both goes a long way. I’m currently of the belief that it works well if you can train your skills whilst under pressure and tired. After all, this is what happens in a game. It’s all well and good that a player can hit a 30 metre miss pass on the captains run but what about in the last 10 minutes of a game when he’s got a 17 stone back rower about to hit him and the score is 10-10. The same with tackling skills. Yes, brilliant to get a tackle bag out for the under 9’s to practice their technique on but at senior level I don’t ever remember seeing tackle bags dotted around a pitch during a game. Tackle a human. They’re much harder to hit. And they move when you’re trying to tackle them! “But what if we get injured?”, Learn to tackle properly and you shouldn’t.

Anyway, I digress. Fitness v Skill. There is a lot of room for both, and indeed, I believe a winning team should be competent in both. Now, if I just had time to squeeze it into 2 training sessions a week…

* Please see attached form for relevant clearance

night out

Calderdale Rugby League Development Squad

When I was growing up (yes, some may argue that never happened) the highlights of my week were when I was playing sport. Whether that was rugby, football, cricket, golf, swimming, whether it was organised or just us on the park playing an impromptu game of American Football! It meant that I didn’t have to think about anything else…

What made me really proud, though, was playing for the area teams, the county select teams or representative teams. These teams made me feel like I’d achieved something, like the work that I had put in on the training ground, in the gym, pounding the street was not all in vain.

So it saddens me, now, to see lads within Rugby who don’t have an area team to play for, or a West Yorkshire squad to aim for. These lads at 13, 14 or 15 either get into an academy or don’t. If they don’t, they keep playing for their local teams knowing the better players have been whisked off into a professional outfit and they’ve, well, they’ve just lost their best players.

I’m no scientist who has conducted study after study on why competitive games at 14 will break the ‘system’ (but is the system working anyway?). I’ve not researched why having selective teams (i.e. representative teams) will suppress the will of those not picked and send them into obscurity. I’m going by common sense and my own experience. At 16 I went to a Yorkshire trial day. I got through the rounds and was in the final match – 15 against 15. The other stand-off was better than me. And as they read out the 20 names of the selected players, my heart sank.  Mine wasn’t on there. I was nearly in tears.

So did I go home and quit rugby? No. I worked harder. I got fitter. I trained better. And the next year I played for Yorkshire U17’s. In my honest opinion, I think that we worry about hurting kids who don’t get picked. We reduce their resilience by giving everyone a reward. We don’t prepare youngsters for the real world where not everything is fair. I think it’s summed up brilliantly by Jeff Walz, a basketball coach.

So whilst everybody is happy in their non-selective fraternities, Calderdale College’s new rugby academy are expecting kids to turn up ready to train and play in a pretty professional environment without ever having been involved in anything like this before. Amateur to professional in one jump. Some make the change easily, some struggle but I feel that’s our fault for not preparing them.

And that’s the crux of the matter. We haven’t prepared them, so lets prepare them. Let’s get the lads that haven’t been selected for a Super League academy and give them an opportunity to develop in a game that has shaped my life and personality. The friendships I’ve formed, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had. Most of the best ones are in some way linked to rugby. Why should these lads fall out of love with a life changing sport because they are, at 15, not deemed good enough to be at an Academy.

Let’s provide them with that environment in the form a development squad where we can help them learn the ‘art’ of rugby. Let’s add to the amazing job their amateur coaches do and give them some things that these coaches don’t have the time or resources to give them. Lets provide professional strength and conditioning advice. Lets give them sprint training. Lets get a sports psychologist to talk to them about the mental side to the sport. Lets provide full analysis of their training sessions and games. Lets put it all into practice and get them competitive games against harder opposition.

Oh, wait. We can’t do that. The Rules say we can’t have competitive games. That might mean somebody loses and, well, we’ve seen what happens if not everybody gets a trophy.

Yes, I may have a small bee in my bonnet about this.

I recently saw a documentary about rival sporting teams. This one was about 2 American Football teams. The biggest derby in Miami. But these were different. These were 4, 5, and 6 years old. There were different reasons for them playing in one of the hardest neighbourhoods in Miami – they were playing to keep them off the street, to stop them joining gangs and to stop them from being shot and killed. But at 4 and 5 years old they were playing full contact sport and smashing it. In 2016, Miami accounted for the most  starting NFL players – 27 – with most emanating from Liberty City, a 5 square mile area where these two teams play and with a population of 19 725. The nearest competition for producing NFL talent? Houston, with 18 and a population of 2 489 558 more than 6 times larger than Miami. And players continue to spill out of Liberty City, so much so, that Ivy League Universities visit every year to offer kids coming out of Liberty full scholarships at ages as young as 13. So, even though for different reasons, this example shows that competition from an early age produces exceptional talent.

So because we can’t have competitive games, we find a work around. We are allowed to have ‘training’ games so we can just organise training around a game scenario….is this just a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Yep. But rules are rules.

We currently have 29 lads in our training squad. We meet once a month and have ‘training’ games if and when we can find opposition who want to train against us. We have been formed for 2 months now and we’ve had one such match. The match was videoed and all the players have access to the footage. They have received group and individual analysis, they have the game broken down for them so they can watch defensive sets, exit sets or good ball sets. They have completed self-assessment forms that we talk to them individually about. We discuss what they did well, what they thought they can improve on and we decide on an improvement plan together.

This month we’re working on speed and in the month prior to this session, we have emailed all the players with pointers and advice on the subject we’re covering. We ask them to do additional work (not to overtrain) but to do extras after their training sessions. This may be as simple to complete 50 passes off each hand. As we’re working on speed this month, we’ve asked them to actually do some short and medium length sprints – to actually practice sprinting (who does that??) and get used to how sprinting actually feels. We give them information on the subject, advice on where they can do further research and how they can incorporate it into their training. What we want is for them to get used to being responsible for their own development.

We don’t stipulate that you have to be at a certain level to attend, but what we do ask is that the players attending have the right attitude. I would much rather work with an average player who works hard, than a prodigy that can’t be bothered. If the players don’t want to do extras, don’t want to learn but just want to play, then the development squad probably isn’t for them.

So – is picking players on ‘coachability’ being selective? Yes. Yes, I think it is….