By Daniel Bell
Rugby League is on the road to becoming a major participation sport in Sussex.
Nick Weston, chairman Hove-based side Sussex Merlins, said: “It’s growing all the time, we only had 10 people at our first training session [in May 2009], now we have an open-age team, under-18s and several junior teams.”
The drive to establish the game in Sussex has now received professional backing, with the creation of a four-way partnership between Merlins, City College Brighton and Hove, Harlequins Rugby League and the RFL (Rugby Football League).
“This is a landmark agreement, not only for us but for Rugby League”, said Weston. “There is now a clear path from under-7 to open age in Sussex.”
City College Brighton and Hove (CCBH) recently became the first team to represent Sussex in the South East region of the Carnegie Champion College Finals.
And four of their players, including Gareth Dean from Moulsecoomb, have earned places in the southern area squad.
Harlequins’ development manager, Andy Fairhurst, said: “This year has been the strongest ever in the South. We scout every major school and college competition, and there is the chance of a professional career for anyone involved.
“Not just as players either. We have pathways for careers in refereeing, physiotherapy and every aspect of the sport.”
The game’s profile has grown since star names like Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards starred for London Broncos in the late nineties. Harlequins RL have already beaten the likes of St Helens and Leeds Rhinos this season.
But preconceptions of League as a sport only played “up North” still exist. “Public perception hasn’t changed much,” says Dan Steel, the RFL’s South East Regional Manager. “It’s a priority for us to change that perception. We’re making progress at shifting perceptions but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
“Obviously there’s still a northern bias because 99 per cent of the best teams come from there, but we’re making progress in shifting perceptions.”
Steel wants to make League a first choice sport for youngsters in the South. “We want kids being brought up with the game and then passing it onto their kids to create future leaders. There’s a huge opportunity in every undeveloped part of the country,” he said.
He believes the style of rugby league makes it an attractive prospect for schools.
He said: “There’s so much opportunity to get involved, props can get as much of the ball as stand-offs. This makes it very suited to being a curriculum sport. It should also make it more appealing to kids and adults alike.”
It’s not just at junior levels that League is expanding. They’ve also created Masters games, where players wear different coloured shorts according to the level of contact they are prepared to receive.
Steel adds: “Not everyone wants to whack each other – so a 35-year-old might have full contact while someone in their sixties might be touch–only.”
“There are options for women or mixed-gender games, and League is unique in offering a wheelchair version where disabled and non-disabled players of both sexes compete together.”
And with the end of the League season coinciding with the start of Union fixtures, Sussex’s rugby players now have the opportunity of playing the game all year.
For more information on how to get involved in Rugby League in Sussex visit www.sussexmerlins.co.uk