You need look no further than the Twitter accounts of top rugby league journalists Matthew Shaw and Aaron Bower on a Friday lunchtime to see that people are generally at the end of their tether when it comes to dual-registration.
I’ll restate a point I make every week. It is nothing against any particular club that decides to use the system to their advantage, the rules are there to allow it. But it is a farcical concept that is open to being abused.— Matthew Shaw (@M_Shaw1) February 15, 2019
The controversial system has ruffled feathers since its introduction in 2013 and has never failed to be a prominent talking point for journalists, club staff, governing body members and fans alike. The latest grumble comes after Leeds youngster Harry Newman was named in both the Rhinos’ squad for their game against Salford last week, as well as being named by Featherstone for their fixture with Leigh. To put that into context – that’s one player named in two squads for two teams playing games at the same time but in different places. Who said rugby league was hard to understand, eh?
Joking aside, though, Newman’s example typifies everything that’s wrong with dual-reg, from the standpoint of both clubs involved to the issue of the player and fans. For those unaware, Newman was a key figure for Rovers’ last year. He scored 16 tries in 12 games and played a prominent role in their Championship Shield win, so you can imagine the void left if he doesn’t play, especially if it’s a last minute decision to replace a Rhinos teammate. A switch like that can change the whole makeup of a team.
It also risks having an adverse effect on Newman’s own development. Most dual-reg players still train fulltime with their parent clubs as well as training for their second side a couple of evenings a week. For a youngster still maturing and developing, that’s one heck of an intense schedule with little rest time. I remember being told a story about once promising Widnes youngster Almer Salvilla, who was on dual-reg with Gloucestershire All Golds in 2016. As an out-of-favour (and rather small) player, he was generally used as a battering ram for defensive drills during the day with the Vikings, then expected to travel two hours down to Cheltenham for evening training with the All Golds. It stunted his progress and he’s no longer in the professional game.
The dual-reg argument has, no doubt, been inflated by the ongoing reserves debate. I know, just when you thought one debate was finished, another one raises its ugly head, and this one is even more farcical. To cut a long story short, Super League is split right down the middle in terms of who wants a reserve competition and who doesn’t, with finances and player pools being the main concerns. Club officials and RFL board members can’t agree who’s right, who’s wrong, what’s best and, in all honesty, who’s in charge. So as you can tell, it’s all a bit of a mess.Hull and Wakefield are the only sides running reserve squads, while Wigan, St Helens, Warrington, Castleford and Hull KR have all said they would if there was a proper competition in place. London said their late promotion meant there wasn’t time to set one up and Salford intend to run one from 2020 onwards. Leeds were the only club who categorically said they weren’t interested, with Chief Executive Gary Hetherington leading the way for the anti-reserves movement.
His main argument is that the Rhinos’ U19s Academy already acts as a reserve squad and that adding an extra team per club would cause a player shortage in the amateur ranks and leave a huge gap in everyone’s finances. His attitude, however, seems particularly small-minded. The current Academy system means players have until the tender age of 19 to prove they have what it takes to make the step up, otherwise they’ll be dumped and, in many cases, lost from the game completely. At that age, though, players are still developing and years away from reaching their potential. It’s like throwing a cake in the bin for not rising when it’s only had 15 minutes in the oven.
As far as money’s concerned, Halifax have shown that limited funds and resources aren’t an issue. Almost a third of their 2019 squad came through their reserves and have gone on to make a big impact in the Championship. The majority of that system was crowd-funded but, in the age of fans in all sports having a huge say in clubs’ ongoing issues, it’s not actually too much of an ask. It’s not like Leeds will be too short on funds anyway.
Ultimately, reserves are the way forward and the game would be much better for it. From Super League clubs’ perspectives, everything would be in-house. They’d have players transitioning into first grade playing the exact same styles and feeling comfortable with the step up. Championship clubs would rely on their own players and have more stable squads, while those players wouldn’t begrudge the fact they’ve been shoved out of their own team by someone who’s probably only there for the week.
Finally, it would bring back another level of entertainment for the most important stakeholders of all – the fans. I’ve got great memories of reserve matches being played as curtain raisers to Super League ones and having the privilege of seeing two games in one night – with my heroes involved in both! With so many clubs pushing for reserves to return it can’t be ignored for long and hopefully some clarity on the issue will be given in the near future.
Above all else, though, the RFL need to take stranglehold of the game and make these sort of executive decisions like they’re supposed to. If not, the game will end up being more of a joke than it, arguably, already is.