SUPER League chief executive Robert Elstone has welcomed the return of a relaunched Reserve Grade competition in 2020 saying it will be “critical to the future success of the game.”
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The 11 English Betfred Super League clubs have approved a proposal for all Super League clubs, and clubs with Category 1 funded Academies outside the top division (Widnes Vikings and Bradford Bulls), to have a mandated reserve team next season.
It has been some time since that was last the case with only a handful of clubs competing in an optional Reserve Grade in recent years, many outfits opting against the extra expenditure but seeing talented young players sometimes struggle to gain game-time elsewhere.
Five further applications from clubs in Betfred Championship and League One have been received, with decisions to be made by the end of July.
The launch of Reserve Grade will be accompanied by a change in the regulations surrounding the Academy, which will now become an Under-18s competition rather than Under-19s, as at present.
The dual registration and loan systems will remain unaffected.
Elstone said: “Super League is about superstars - players that get us on the edge of our seats, players that make our jaws drop, players that inspire us.
“Our success will depend on our ability to find, nurture and create the superstars of tomorrow.
“It's why development pathways like this are so critical to the future success of the game.
“It is essential that we offer appropriate challenges to our young players on their journeys into Super League.
“A well-managed, resourced and competitive reserve grade will provide that.”
The RFL’s Interim Chief On-Field Officer Dave Rotherham added: “We have listened to the views of stakeholders – clubs, coaches and players – before making this proposal.
“The majority view is that the game would benefit from the reintroduction of a Reserve Grade competition, primarily as a next step in the development of players between Academy and senior rugby, but also to provide regular rugby for players on the fringe of selection, returning from injury, and a platform for later developers.
“It was important in making what is a significant change that we also took into account the impact on the other professional competitions – Betfred Championship and League One – and also the community game.”
Hull FC coach Lee Radford has always been a fan of the system and continued to play reserve games even when there has been a lack of structured competition.
“I know from personal playing experience the value of reserve team rugby, and I’ve also seen it at Hull in the last few years,” he said.
“I signed for Bradford at 18 but didn’t become a regular first-teamer until 22 or 23, and without the years I had in reserves learning my trade, I might have been left in the wings.
“It gave me the grounding for first-team football, playing against some experienced Super League players.
“It also means clubs won’t be having to make difficult decisions on 19-year-olds, when some players – especially in the pack – tend to develop a bit later. I look at lads at Hull FC like Jamie Shaul, Chris Green and this season Kieran Buchanan, who have all benefited from reserve team rugby before getting their first-team chance.”
Leeds Rhinos director of rugby Kevin Sinfield agreed: "The Reserve Grade competition is vitally important to our game.
"We have missed it and I think we have missed a trick with the development of our young players by not having the competition for a number of years now.
"Clubs were forced to make a decision on academy players at Under 19 level which is unfair on both the player and those people who have worked so hard to develop that player from scholarship level and before that in their community clubs. I am delighted that the development pathway has been extended."
The Reserve Grade competition in 2020 will be administered by the RFL.
The fixture schedule will be finalised during the winter but is expected to run on a home and away basis, with no play-offs.