Nicholas Pyke reports on why rugby league is losing out in schools despite growing popularity
Strange as it might seem, the bone-jarring heroics of the British Lions rugby union team have done much to promote the rival game of rugby league. No one has sent more South African Springboks crashing to ground than Scott Gibbs and no one has scored more tries than John Bentley. Both are graduates of the rugby league game.
But while the Lions enjoy a most improbable series win on the veld, their colleagues in the rugby league strongholds of the North are suffering. British sides have been pulverised in the Super League World Club Championship. So far they have lost 27 out of 30 games against their Australasian opponents, often by enormous scores.
Inquiries and commissions have ensued. But one of the major problems is already well recognised: a chaotic and sometimes non-existent youth development system, so confused by rival initiatives that no one can say how many children actually play rugby league, or in how many schools they play it.
Rugby league now accepts that it must attract more juniors. While it remains a minority pursuit, largely confined to industrial parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, there will never be enough good players to go round. Not, that is, if British clubs are to compete with teams from Australia - where the game is considered glamorous.
There has been some modest success. Youth versions of rugby league are proving popular in the North-east, for example. But rugby union, the 15-strong team game, is scarcely threatened, remaining wealthy, socially attractive and the dominant force in most of the country. Rugby league has 13 to a team and is the working-class version which broke away from union in 1895 when northern clubs started to pay players to compensate them for their time away from work.
Even the people who run rugby league accept that the game is not exactly helping itself by maintaining three separate bodies to oversee youth development. There is, for example, the professional Rugby Football League, which looks at the world through the eyes of Wigan, St Helens and the other high-profile clubs taking part in the Super League. Each one has a youth academy of under-19 players with its own development manager and development policy.
Then, in Huddersfield, there is the British Amateur Rugby League Association, BARLA. Formed in the early 1970s to revive the game's grassroots, BARLA runs the amateur clubs, the regional and district leagues including the junior game. It is BARLA that gets Sports Council funding.
To add further confusion there is also the English Schools Rugby League, responsible for prestigious under-16s competitions, pitting the elites of one town against another.
The result is a plethora of competitions; several different development officers; and two, rival, coaching schemes for teachers and club officials. According to Tom O'Donovan, the RFL's development executive, no one can yet agree on consistent versions of the mini-league or mod-league games (for the under-9s and under-11s respectively). And until that happens, he says, there is little chance of promoting them as part of the national curriculum.
The ESRL meanwhile has its 13-year-olds playing full-size games on full-size pitches.
"If any sport doesn't pay attention to its schools, juniors and youth development policies, recruitment and player development they will not perform consistently at a higher level," says Mr O'Donovan.
"Groups of people are putting a great deal of energy and resources and thought into their respective areas. The fact that it's not coordinated has to be a factor in the present difficulties. When it comes to the world club championship you can see dramatically how inadequate our system is."
While BARLA gets the sports council cash, the RFL believes that it is only the professional game that has the profile and attraction to move things forward. But the clubs, says Mr O'Donovan, cannot do it on their own.
"The rest of England is crying out for rugby league development. But without the resources and investment we can't do much. As it stands there is duplication of effort and money. We need to take what's excellent from BARLA and from the RFL and drive it on. It sometimes feels as if we're in competition."
All eyes now are on the national youth commission, devised to bring the various interests together. Not that it quite exists, yet. There has been a youth commission working party for the past three months, but of the commission itself there is no sign.