Mention rugby league and instantly your word association leaps to the North of England and towns such as Widnes, Warrington and St Helens. Yet soon that association could be with Cheltenham and even more suprisingly, Toronto, as Rugby League looks to expand its horizons.
On a training pitch in the spa town of Chetenham, the All Golds, the University of Gloucestershire's rugby league team can be found working hard to help bring the sport south. Among them are students with professional contracts, tying them to the only rugby league team in the world to be owned by a university. The All Golds have been playing at semi-professional level in the country's third tier since 2013 but are now taking on some even bigger names in the new Kingstone Press League 1 season which began in March.
Perhaps even more astinishing is on the other side of the Atlantic, another team is looking for stardom in the shape of the Toronto Wolfpack. It won’t be the first time that a side from outside the UK has entered the competition, but tis certainly not common, although last year saw the emergence of Toulouse, who promptly won the league and were promoted to the Championship, just one step from the Super League .
All Golds founder Lionel Hurst, a Warrington-born lawyer who has long been a champion of his favourite sport in Gloucestershire, is looking forward to the challenge posed by the debutants from Canada. The two teams are due to meet in North America in the penultimate round of fixtures on July 8. “They’re going to be outstanding,” said Hurst. “Their target is to win our division and get into Super League. They’ve got a billionaire behind them and they are full-time.and have recruited players from across the globe".
Toronto are also paying the travel and accommodation costsof all visiting teams to their base at the Lamport Stadium and parted with £250,000 to the Rugby Football League as a “good faith” gesture. All Golds head coach Lee Greenwood, who led the team to a 12th-place finish last year, said: “They’re throwing a lot of money at it. Their budget is ridiculous compared to ours. If you look at the calibre of their players, some of them could be playing in the league above and maybe the Super League as well. We’ve had Toulouse before but this is different, it’s a long way to travel to a country that some of the lads won’t have been to before. For the part-time clubs the travel will be tough. But I am totally behind the decision, just not so much the [Wolfpack] playing squad with a lot of English lads.”
Toronto will become Canada’s first professional rugby team and also the world's first transatlantic major professional sporting club.“When Super League was brought in, it was the European Super League, and Paris were in that to start with,” added Greenwood, who was capped by England twice and played for Super League teams including the London Broncos and Huddersfield Giants. “There has always been a feel of opening it up. Trying to grow the game, not to just European audiences but a worldwide audience. Having Toronto in the league should make Canada stronger. In turn, it could produce a lot of Canadian-born rugby league players. It’ll start with English and Northern lads now but in five years they’ll be Canadian and what a service that’ll be.”
As one would expect, the All Golds themselves are in the minority group comes to the North/South divide in their division, although the presence of London Skolars, South Wales Ironmen and Oxford, if not Toronto, at least keeps the travelling time down a touch. “In the past the game has predominantly been played across the M62 corridor and anything outside has been frowned upon. They blame anything wrong with the game on the expansion of it.
“If we can get the local area behind it then we can do really well. We are part of the university but we are a team for everyone and once people watch it, they tend to come back. And with the amount of rugby we have in the South West, I think people will like it when they see it.” While the All Golds feel they are battling a location stereotype, there is no shortage of West Country clubs for fans of the game to access. Hurst added: “It's not just professional teams in the South, we’ve got Cheltenham Phoenix, Gloucestershire Warriors, Bath and Wiltshire Romans and Somerset Vikings.”
Doing things right
But while there certainly seems to be an appetite for the game, will it all make a difference in the struggle for Sotuhern sides to catch up with the North of England? “We’ll not make any predictions league table wise,” said Hurst. “But South Wales will be stronger. Hemel Stags have given up the ghost on local players but we’re trying to get guys in the university and produce local lads, so we want to do it right. It’s going to be a big, big challenge. We seem to be in a southern group and everyone wants to finish top of the southern teams. But we’ve brought the squad together a lot more and cut down the travelling so hopefully that will help. We’re stronger off the field too with a new assistant coach (Anthony Murray) so we’re trying to do it the right way and I think we’ll be stronger this year.”
The All Golds undeniably have the greatest claim to fame of the Southern group. Way back in 1908, the New Zealand rugby league team came to the UK and their first game became known a the birth of international rugby league. That game was held in Cheltenham.
Hurst said: “People want to hear about this great match between New Zealand and the Northern Union, as Great Britain were called. That’s why we have the gold fern as our emblem and there are many tributes to players from 1908 in and around the Prince of Wales Stadium. Today the university side is unbeaten. It’s a great tool and we’re only just scratching the surface. It will continue to get better, bigger and bigger.”
And while it is no shock to learn that crowds for home matches at the Prince of Wales Stadium are dwarfed by those generated by Aviva Premiership giants Gloucester Rugby just down the road, Hurst insisted: “There’s a place for both sports. You don’t have to pick one or the other, but there’s nothing wrong with supporting the league in the summer.