Rugby league is entering the first stages of becoming a fully-fledged participation sport in Sussex.
The drive has received professional backing with the start of a four-way partnership between Merlins, City College Brighton & Hove, Harlequins Rugby League and the Rugby Football League (RFL).
“The partnership is a landmark not only for our club but for rugby league,” said Sussex Merlins chairman Nick Weston. “When added to our junior teams there is now a clear path from under-seven to open age in rugby league in Sussex. These kids will have the support of professional coaches from Quins to ensure longevity for the game here.”
Merlins, based in Hove, draw players from all over the county. “We have players from Chichester, Crawley, Worthing, Haywards Heath and Seaford. A few adult players used to play for Crawley Jets, previously the biggest league club in these parts,” said Weston.
City College became the first team to represent Sussex in the south-east regional play-offs of the Carnegie national colleges tournament. Although they were knocked out, four players – including 18-year-old Jim Wright – gained places in the southern area squad.
“I’ve only ever played union before,” said Wright, who is on a two-year rugby development course at City College.
“The course gives me a BTEC in sport which covers rugby coaching and fitness so there are options if we don’t become professionals.”
The game achieved visibility in the south east after the London Broncos brought in star names like Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards in the late 1990s. Its cause is being helped by the success of Harlequins RL, who are fourth in the Super League and have beaten St Helens and Leeds Rhinos.
But preconceptions of League as a sport only played “up north” still exist. “Public perception hasn’t changed much,” said Dan Steel, the RFL’s south-east regional manager. “It’s a priority for us to change that.”
With the end of the rugby league season coinciding with the start of union fixtures, players can play all year.
For more, visit www.sussexmerlins.co.uk and www.ccb.ac.uk