Dave Craven - Anger at RFL’s decision to axe three Yorkshire academies won’t go away any time soon

RIGHTLY or wrongly, rugby league’s academy competitions do not ordinarily command many column inches.

Production line: The Castleford academy has produced many players who have gone to play on both in the top flight and internationally. Jacques O’Neill is a more recent graduate. PICTURE: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

That, however, does not mean it isn’t an important area of the game, something that has clearly been illustrated by the widespread reaction to news that three clubs have lost their Elite Academy status for 2022-2027.

Castleford Tigers, Hull KR and Bradford Bulls were all denied such a licence after a panel – convened by the RFL and Super League – deemed their applications did not meet standard.

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The number of clubs with such licences has been cut from 13 to ten when, realistically, the general feeling is the sport needs to be encouraging more youngsters to play not discourage them.

Rarely has there been such an avalanche of anger, dismay and incredulity from people within the game.

That is not just supporters who have seen their club cut off, but especially players and former players, many of whom have come through those academies previously to establish themselves as Super League players.

They ask what happens to the kid from Bradford who dreams of playing for Bradford?

Admittedly, clubs can still run an Under-19s side but not in the top league with the elite sides. Instead, it would be development academies run in conjunction with further education institutes.

Bradford boy: Wigan and England's former Bulls star John Bateman is one of the top forwards in world rugby league. Picture by Ed Sykes/SWpix.com

But which young aspiring player, in truth, would want to join a non-elite academy? There is a fear that the likes of Bradford, Castleford and Hull KR will lose the most talented youngsters in their area to those with elite status, thus only making the strong stronger.

Perhaps the phrase ‘elite’ is the real issue; is it even really necessary? It is easy to understand why the three Yorkshire clubs that missed out might be worried about the future, too.

Unsurprisingly given the way rugby league likes to shift so often without actually moving, there is talk of a return to Super League licensing and, if that did happen, not having an elite academy, would likely be a big blot against their bids. Moreover, in recent years, KR, Castleford and Bradford have all worked hard to improve their academy provision having been actively encouraged to do so by the powers-that-be.

Rovers know they have not produced enough homegrown talent at times but employing the revered John Bastian as head of youth and Tony Smith – a head coach with a rich history in developing young players – was a clear step in addressing that.

Talent spotter: Hull KR coach Tony Smith has a good track record of developing young talent. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

Similarly, Castleford have seen Academy products Jacques O’Neill, Brad Graham, Lewis Peachey, Bailey Hodgson and Sam Hall all represent the first-team in the last couple of years.

Bradford, too, have a reputation for developing their own, although perhaps not as many as others in the period assessed from 2016 onwards.

It was agreed before the panel process that up to 12 licences would be awarded. One would be from France and – to ensure players from across the country had access to an elite pathway – two from ‘emerging affinity areas’.

They were Championship clubs London Broncos and Newcastle Thunder with Catalans Dragons getting the French slot.

The other successful clubs were Huddersfield Giants, Hull FC, Leeds Rhinos, St Helens, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors.

It is understood those who missed out genuinely believed a dozen clubs would be awarded licences and the decision to award only ten has shocked them.

Geography plays a part, Castleford saying feedback on their bid suggests being close to other clubs has hampered them, yet there is nothing they can do about that which only adds to the sense of frustration.

Nevertheless, the governing bodies will argue the aim of such academies has always been to produce high quality Super League and England players.

Since 2013, they have believed that should be via fewer but better academies which, in turn, would strengthen the community game: they do not believe there are enough quality players around. That is a hard point to prove or disprove. They will also argue, compared to rugby union, which has just two academies in the north of England, rugby league has five times as many.

No one is sure yet how much money from the new broadcast deal will filter down from Super League Europe to fund academies. Previously, clubs received around £100,000 per season but then had to match that out of their own pocket but the powers-that-be insist opting for ten was not due to funding.

Rovers have demanded an independent inquiry into the decision, Tigers are awaiting more detailed feedback while Bulls feel their ruling should be reversed. Expect this issue to run and run.

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