Appetite grows for amateur to move to summer

AMATEUR rugby league could follow its professional counterparts and make the decision to switch to summer later this year.

There is growing support for a move away from the traditional winter season with many clubs willing to follow the path of Super League and the Championship.

Ever since the professional game controversially ended a century of tradition by shifting to summer in 1995 there has been debate about whether the amateurs should do likewise.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

A number of factors, including the need to increase interest, ease clubs' financial problems, reduce annual fixture backlogs and improve playing levels, are all pushing the potential reform closer to reality.

With 29.4m funding from Sport England over the next three years, the RFL's Director of Participation and Strategic Partnerships David Gent is central to helping the game expand at community level.

He revealed yesterday that the RFL's Community Board had been approached by representatives in the amateur game – which incorporates the British Amateur Rugby League Association (both open age and youth junior sections), the Armed Services, Student and Schools rugby – to ascertain whether there is a desire to make such a major transition.

"At our last meeting in February we had a number of requests," said Gent, who is hoping to increase participation levels by 52,000 by 2013.

"We were asked to go away, talk to people, see what the game wants and find out if there is an appetite for moving to summer. If everything goes as it has been, it's looking like it could be yes."

Gent and National Development Manager Andy Harland have attended two meetings at National Conference League club Leigh East and a further gathering at Leeds-based Oulton Raiders to speak to various officials and gage opinion.

They are also set to hear more views at a meeting at Huddersfield Giants' Galpharm Stadium this evening before returning to deliver their recommendations to the Community Board on April 30.

BARLA have sometimes baulked at such plans in the past but Gent says meetings with the amateur game's governing body have been very positive.

"There's been no massive campaign of people saying 'over our dead bodies,' he said.

"Lots of people think it feels right but want to know more details. The key issue is where does the community game best believe the game needs to be positioned to get more people playing. It's not just whether it's summer or winter rugby."

There are two ideas of how a new-look season could run.

Teams could play from March through to November with a six-week break for the school summer holidays. Alternatively, a split-campaign could run from September through to August with no action from December to February.

"There would have to be a period of consultation," said Gent, who admitted some leagues may push ahead while others decide to remain in the current format given the needs of juniors and youths may not tally with open age sides.

This season has been one of the worst in decades for fixtures being decimated by the weather, something which both discourages players and causes constant problems for clubs while reducing the chance of players improving their skills.

Gent added: "There has been real concern with some clubs saying they just aren't making enough money through the winter to make it viable. One told us they had taken in 19 over six weeks because the club had to shut down with no fixtures."

A switch to summer would increase the chances of encouraging rugby union players to try the sport but that is not paramount in the RFL's eyes.

They point to the Rugby League Conference, now in its 12th summer season and having recently broken the 100 club barrier, as to what can be achieved.

"That's surviving in a world where rugby union, football and cricket are all there," he said. "It's booming and moving forward."

Harland said: "The next few months are going to be really exciting times when everyone gets down to the nitty-gritty – what will it look like and how do we get there.

"There is a real debate going on. I'm yet to meet a coach who doesn't think it's a good idea and there's players out there who can't wait for it to happen."