Tackling the North-South divide: How a northern sport is migrating to schools in the South

And this school is just one of hundreds outside the industrial North to have
taken up the sport in the past few years, all participating in an immensely
successful and growing national schools competition which culminates every
year in a showcase event on the Wembley Stadium pitch, before the final of
the professional clubs’ knock-out event, the Carnegie Challenge Cup Final.

On the day of my visit to Brentwood, the pupils are divided into four age
groups, each with at least one teacher as coach. The session is divided into
general fitness routines, practising the skills of the game, such as
tackling and passing, and playing a short match. There’s also some practice
at kicking through the H-shaped posts. The enthusiasm is palpable, and no
one appears put off by the rain and mud. It’s a contact sport, and
everywhere I look bodies are colliding, and outstretched arms are reaching
to score tries. The atmosphere is eager exertion mixed with simple enjoyment
of vigorous physical activity. Occasionally a teacher stops the action to
draw attention to a tactical or coaching point. “Well tackled. Now get
in a defensive line,” says one. “Move the ball quickly through the
hands,” comes another.

It’s not just boys who’ve come out in the wet. One pitch belongs to the girls’
squad, playing the game with no less gusto, and apparently unbothered by wet
hair, grimy fingernails and muddy knees.

The popularity of the sport at this school is all the more striking as we are
in Essex, a county where football has long dominated the scene. Not far from
here, David Beckham, Bobby Moore and Frank Lampard first laced up their
boots.

“It’s overtaken football at this school,” says head of boys PE
Adrian Ackred, taking a breather from coaching the 11 to 13-year-olds’
squad. “We wouldn’t have this number of kids come out to Monday-night
football practice.”

The real catalyst here, Ackred freely admits, is his fellow PE teacher Daniel
Iacono, who is putting an older boys group through their paces on an
adjoining pitch. Iacono, an Australian with a strong rugby league pedigree,
first came to the school in 2005 in his then job as a development officer
for Rugby Football League (RFL), the sport’s Leeds-based governing body. He
was part of a campaign by RFL to expand interest in the sport in schools
across the country by offering free coaching to pupils, and, more
importantly, by teaching PE staff how to coach what for most was a foreign
game.

At Brentwood, Iacono’s influence was immediate. A Year 7 (11 and 12-year-olds)
boys’ team was formed within weeks, and every year since then participation
has grown, with the school now fielding boys and girls teams in the national
competition. In last year’s event, both the Year 7 and Year 8 boys’ teams
reached the national quarter finals. Iacono, now one of the school’s
full-time PE teachers, was last year named Carnegie Rugby League Teacher of
the Year for London and the South.

He has a theory why pupils here have shown such an appetite to learn from him
about rugby league. “Most kids don’t want to listen to a teacher about
how football should be played, because they have other influences like the
weekend coach, their dad or brother and it’s always on TV as well,” he
says. “But rugby league is something they haven’t seen before, so they
have to listen.”

The prominent position of the sport, giving frequent opportunities for pupils
to represent the school in outside competitions, has contributed to a sharp
improvement in all round behaviour, he says. This is a point endorsed by his
boss, Ackred. “I would say it’s had a massive impact on behaviour
around the school,” he says. “The unity they have with each other
and the pride and self esteem created by representing the school produces a
nicer breed of student.”

As the practice session is finishing, some of the pupils tell me why they like
the sport so much. “If you’ve had a bad day you can get rid of the
aggression on the pitch,” says Dennie Jones, 14, who admits to having
had a patchy behaviour record before rugby league came along. “It’s
interesting and different and you do it with different people,” chips
in Arthur Austin, 14.

Gabby Larkin, 12, says she enjoys getting dirty and “just going for it”.
And Hannah Walkner, 14, offers: “In school it’s like proper boring, but
this is different; you can hurt people without feeling guilty about it.”

At RFL headquarters in Leeds, there is justifiable pride at what has been
achieved since the Carnegie Champion Schools competition was launched in
2002. Open to all secondary schools in the country, it is growing every
year, and can now call itself the world’s largest rugby league knock-out
tournament.

Last year almost 500 schools took part, including nearly 1,500 boys’ teams and
more than 200 girls teams. All winning schools came from Yorkshire or
Lancashire, but schools from other regions are progressing further in the
competition year on year.

“The aim now is to spread the game further into the Midlands, South and
South-west,” says RFL national development manager Andy Harland, “and
get schools to enter more girls teams.”

“The hope is that some of these schools will soon overtake schools from
the heartlands,” says Andy Gilvary, RFL regional development officer
for London and the South-east. “And we hope the professional clubs will
start coming down South to look for players at the schools.”

Rugby codes: Union versus league

How many sorts of rugby are there?

Two: rugby union, with 15 players a team, is played all over the country and
has its roots in public schools. Rugby league is a 13-a-side game,
historically based in the northern conurbations between the Mersey and the
Humber.

How did they evolve?

Rugby union arrived first, in the mid-19th century, and was an amateur game.
But when clubs in the industrial north wanted to pay players to compensate
them for missing work, a row broke out, leading the northern teams to break
away and form their own league. The split has continued to this day, even
though both sports are now fully professional.

Are the rules the same?

Almost but not quite. The main difference is that, in rugby league, when
someone is tackled, the rest of the players aren’t allowed to pile on top.
The downed player just stands up, heels the ball backwards to a team-mate
and the game re-starts. This element makes rugby league a faster game.

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