Late last Friday morning, Castleford, Hull KR and Bradford received the shattering news from the RFL that the elite status of their academies would be taken away at the end of the season.
Around an hour later, with the players and coaches having been given minimal notice, the news became public, to widespread condemnation from the rugby league community. The process – which took the form of a written application from each club involved and did not include any on-site assessment – saw 10 other clubs granted elite status, leaving two of the available places unfilled.
Two other clubs, Leigh and Salford, also saw their applications rejected as they look to develop their respective youth pathways. The disappointment there was tangible too, but for the three clubs having their elite status taken away, the implications for the people involved were devastating.
Leigh Beattie has been involved in Bradford’s junior development for over a decade, and the Bulls’ head of youth since September 2019. It has been a prolific system – four members of England’s 2017 World Cup final side came through it, in Sam and Tom Burgess, John Bateman and Elliot Whitehead. When Bradford beat London Broncos on Sunday, seven of the 17 were homegrown, with a further seven in their first team squad. Beattie himself has coached current Super League players James Bentley, Jake Trueman, Matty Storton, Cameron Scott and Oliver Wilson at the Bulls.
Yet as things stand, from next year Bradford will be excluded from the elite academy competition and lose the funding that brings. When Beattie talks through what it means to the club and the people involved four days after the announcement, they had still not received formal reasons for the decision, though that arrived shortly after the interview on Tuesday afternoon.
“It was heart-wrenching, gutting,” Beattie says of the moment he learned of the ruling. “I went through all the emotions – I was upset at first, then angry, then wondering what we’re going to do and working something out to tell the young lads. There was some very upset and disappointed kids on Friday night when I spoke to them, and we couldn’t tell them why.
“Some of those lads had an academy game for us on the Saturday on the back of that. I’ve got a great group of lads, a fantastic bunch of young men, and under all that adversity they went out and did what they all want to do, which is play a game of rugby league for their club. The way they have conducted themselves since Friday has been outstanding. Rugby league as a whole breeds special people, right down into the community game they show respect for each other. I’ve had some great support and nice messages to say the lads are behind me and the staff, and it’s been pretty emotional. It’s what you do it for.
“The whole process for me personally has been mentally tough and draining. For everyone involved there has been some hard work gone into that licensing process, and then waiting for the result, it was mentally tiring.
“My main focus now is the wellbeing of my players, staff and myself. At the end of the day it’s a big blow, it’s upsetting and there are a lot of parents angry and mystified by it all. We’ve got to try and stay positive and do the best we can until we know what might happen next.”
Asked why he thinks the decision went against the Bulls, Beattie responds: “I can’t think of any reason, none whatsoever. We’re still producing players and we always will – that fact is there in black and white. We’ve constantly produced players at Bradford Bulls for as long as I can remember and we’ll continue to do that. Unfortunately sometimes they join different clubs but we carry on.
“We’ve got full-time staff here and this decision means they could lose their jobs. Players’ dreams and aspirations have gone. There are 75 kids here, and if you take Cas and Hull KR as well, that’s approximately 200 kids you’re talking about. They want to play for their local team, for Bradford against Leeds and Huddersfield, and I’m sure it’s the same at Hull KR and Cas too.
“We have a great foundation who go out into the community and work tirelessly to try and get participation numbers up, they’re linked to the community clubs in Bradford and there’s plenty of them. The numbers were fairly big anyway but they’re starting to grow again now. It’s just all very, very sad.”
Twenty-two miles up the M62, the feelings at Castleford Tigers are just as strong. Their statement outlined the club’s devastation at the ruling, referred to a 2,000 page document that had been prepared and highlighted the homegrown players in their own first team squad.
One of them, young forward Sam Hall, has come through the Tigers’ system to earn a first team deal and made his Super League debut last year. He offers a players’ insight into Friday’s decision.
“I’d been at training with a few of the under-19s boys but nobody knew about it,” Hall explains. “It came out at 11am on that day, and I think Darren Higgins who runs it for us found out at 10am. They tried to warn us but we only got a message in the group chat at about five to 11 telling us that it was going to come out. By the time some people had read it they’d already seen the statement. It was a massive shock.
“I felt bad for a few of the boys because we’ve still got a full season, but how are they meant to play as well as they can when they might just have to stop playing or go back to amateur? There might not be something there for them to work towards. For these boys it’s a difficult situation.”
A danger of saturating certain areas and a need to protect the community game have been cited as reasons for the decision, with the Tigers’ neighbours Wakefield securing an elite licence. But there are already concerns about rival teams poaching the best talent from the three unsuccessful applicants, and Hall insists being able to play for your local club is crucial for young players.
“It means everything. Cas is my closest team and the one I’ve always wanted to play for. A lot of the lads I play with are from Cas, they’ve been fans and it’s a dream to play for them. For that to be taken away from them without any notice as well, is shocking.
“I joined when I was 14, played two years in the scholarship, then academy and signed my first team deal. For me, Cas is the club that’s helped me get a first team contract, and to be where I am now. From my perspective it’s worked, and there’s a pathway there for players at Cas to play Super League.
“I’ve gone through the whole system and played first team, Brad Graham has done the same, Lewis Peachey, Cain Robb, Adam Rusling – I’ve played with them for four or five years and we’ve all come through together. From a development perspective as a young kid, I don’t see how it’s not working.
“A lot of the boys are hoping it will be overturned. Everyone knows about this decision now, but nobody’s happy about it at all. There’s nothing good coming out of what they’ve done. I don’t know how many players are in the whole system, but there’s now going to be a fair few from Cas and the surrounding area that won’t be able to play at this level. I can’t see what good or benefit comes from not giving them the licence for the academy.”
Hull KR were approached to contribute to this piece but declined and referred to their statement on the matter, which called on the RFL to make an “urgent independent review of its elite academy application”. It also confirmed that they were contesting the matter “as a matter of urgency”.
Rovers academy coach Jason Netherton did share an email he had from the parents or one of his players on Twitter, which stated they believed the club is “doing a fantastic job” with its scholarship and academy, but that they had never seen their son “so disheartened and feeling so low” than after Friday’s decision. It added: “We really hope this decision gets overturned as it would be tragic for all your hard work to go to waste and devastating for all them lads that have become like a family at Hull KR on and off the pitch”.
Over 6,000 people had signed an online petition calling for the decision to be overturned at the time of writing, which had been pushed on social media by a host of Super League players.
Mirror Sport contacted the Rugby Football League for responses to a series of questions on the issue, including whether the clubs involved could appeal against the decision. An RFL spokesperson said: “Clubs were advised as part of the application process that they would have the option to seek a review of the panel’s process appeal to Sports Resolutions. We understand that they will want to explore that option and have already held discussions with one of the clubs about this. This is a natural extension to the process.”
The governing body will not publicise the findings of each individual club “to respect their confidentiality”, but will provide feedback both verbally and in writing.
Asked whether it would have been better to advise clubs of any shortcomings in their academy set-ups, and offer them time to remedy that, the spokesperson responded: “The RFL is in regular dialogue with all clubs, and all those with academies have received regular feedback over the last cycle relating specifically to the reapplication process. Current licences have been extended twice, to coincide with the broadcast deal and to alleviate pressures caused by the pandemic.
“We would not be acting in the best interests of the sport if the mere fact a club is currently operating an academy meant they had the right to do so in perpetuity. Equally, allowing an unlimited number of professional clubs to operate elite player development programmes, would decimate the community game at critical age groups and would give players unrealistic expectations of a future career in the sport.
“As governing body of the sport, a key factor in all our decisions is the interests of players. We believe that the focus for our elite player development programme has to be the highest quality environments which offer the players with the most potential the best opportunity to progress to being Super League-quality players. This was the direction of travel supported by the clubs.
“We understand that there is an impact on the players and coaches currently at the clubs that were not awarded a licence. From a welfare perspective, our partner charity Rugby League Cares is working with those clubs impacted to offer support. In addition, we are seeking to work with the clubs to discuss the many options available to the players for the 2022 season and beyond.
“These options may include the potential for the impacted players to remain at the current clubs for a transitional year and work with the RFL to create a development academy. These are development programmes operated in conjunction with further education providers and offers a sustainable stake in a talent pathway for all professional clubs whilst still being sympathetic to the participation of the community game.”
The governing body also stood by the application process when asked if it was satisfied with its systems given the backlash to the news. The spokesperson added: “We believe this was a difficult but necessary process to improve the game’s elite player development programme, with necessary consideration for the health of the community game.
“The process was scoped-out in full consultation with the clubs through the Heads of Youth Forum, the Super League Football Working Group and the CEO forums, and has received support throughout. The process, and recommendations of the panel also had the approval of the RFL Board. We therefore believe the process was robust and rigorous, and strengthened further through the additional of independent input.
“It is the role of governing body to make tough decisions in the best interests of the sport.”