The rugby league club that swapped Canada’s capital for a Cornish town

Until last week, Hemel Hempstead, Ottawa and Penryn had very little in common. Now they have been united by that most unlikely concept: a third division rugby league team. It is the strangest of stories.

In September 2018, Hemel Stags were hammered 52-7 at Bradford Bulls in their final game of the League 1 season. Few knew it would be their final game in the professional competition, returning to the amateur ranks after five challenging seasons. The club sold their professional licence to Eric Perez, the Canadian entrepreneur behind the launch of Toronto Wolfpack, who announced early last year that he was taking the Hemel Stags franchise to Ottawa and rechristening them the Aces. Former Catalans Dragons boss Laurent Frayssinous would be head coach, and a raft of top Championship players signed up to represent Ottawa in League 1 in 2021. Then Covid struck.

Last month Perez confirmed that playing in Ottawa in the new-look world was unfeasible. Instead, the Aces would be based in England. Rumours spread: would it be Liverpool, Harrogate, Bradford? No, Penryn in south-west Cornwall.

“We can do something special here,” said Perez last week. “It’s a rugby league place waiting to happen. This is a long-term project. We’re going to build this sustainably over time. We want to enrich the general tapestry of English rugby league. I would like to be in Super League within seven to 10 years. There is already a lot of grassroots activity which we will be supporting and the Cornish Rebels are going to be a feeder club.”

The new club, Cornwall RLFC, at one stroke fulfils the ambitions of Cornish Rebels, the amateur team only formed eight years ago but keen to join the professional structure. Perez says his club’s ethos is “Cornish first” and that he wants “the bulk of our side to be Cornish” but he is unlikely to find more than a handful of Cornish players capable of playing at League 1 level. He needs experienced rugby league professionals and they won’t come cheap. There is a gigantic difference in financial commitment between a lowly League 1 club that pays local players around £100 a week and an ambitious one that has to entice experienced professionals to relocate if they are to chase promotion.

While Perez was in charge of Toronto Wolfpack, their training base was in Brighouse in West Yorkshire, then Manchester, with the players travelling to Canada en masse several times each summer. Toronto were full-time, as Ottawa planned to be, but Cornwall say they will be semi-pro and based in the south west. In an 11-team division, that means 10 long journeys to away matches, each needing an overnight stay at a cost of up to £5,000 a trip.

Attracting 20 experienced players to up sticks and move to Cornwall from the north of England, France or Australia also requires major investment. They may do what Truro City FC did when they reached football’s sixth tier and train in Bristol with some major players only travelling to Cornwall for matches. Or what Oxford Rugby League tried; half of their squad trained in Castleford, half in Abingdon. It didn’t work. Either way, it is going to cost a lot. A top-end Championship budget is around £1m, five times what most contenders spend to get out of League 1, but the sort of sum Cornwall may need if they are to pursue a place in Super League 2.

Social media has been awash with northern fans moaning about their players having to make nine-hour coach trips to Falmouth, but Cornwall will need to take full advantage of weary opponents arriving at the Memorial Ground in Penryn after mammoth journeys. The New Zealand-based businessman Colin Groves, who is a director at Cornish Pirates rugby union team, Truro City and the Cornish Rebels rugby league side, fills the same post at the new club. It would be no surprise to see them all eventually share the proposed £14m Stadium for Cornwall in Truro.

“For the first time in our sports history we are truly a national game,” said Groves, ignoring the history of failed professional clubs in Devon, Wales, Kent, Essex, Oxford and Cheltenham. “Cornwall is a place that was made for rugby league with a tremendous talent pool. We will unearth many Cornish rugby league heroes.” Hmmm. With little latent fanbase for the sport, no player pathway and zero commercial commitment yet, they are starting from scratch, something that was a recipe for disaster in Maidstone, Mansfield, Oxford and others.

In a rugby-mad area, crowds should not be an issue in League 1 where most clubs attract around 400. But with a population of 21,000, support is going to have to come from further afield than the arty university town of Falmouth. Living in a beautiful area they may be, but Cornwall’s half-million population is far from affluent; pre-Covid, an EU study declared it the second poorest region in northern Europe. With League 1 funding expected to be little more than £20,000 per club next year, income will be hard-earned.

The RFL’s seemingly logical geographic expansion plan – launching semi-pro clubs that would link Coventry to London via Northampton (who never made the start gate), Hemel, Oxford and Cheltenham in a development-heavy third division – cunningly created a presence in each of Sport England’s nine regions, yet was fatally flawed. With most being around an hour from Hemel, the southern clubs were competing for the same small pool of League 1-quality players. After a highly respectable first season in which they avoided defeat in half of their games, Hemel started to struggle.

The RFL relegated a handful of established clubs into the third tier, condemning the expansion clubs to a dozen insurmountable challenges every season. In 2016, Hemel lost 20 of their 22 games, using an extraordinary 59 players, only 20 of whom played more than four times.

Hemel made a drastic decision. They started to train in Yorkshire, 165 miles north of their stadium, and the team only travelled to Hemel for home games. Yorkshire provided a greater talent base than Hertfordshire, but Hemel were left with players the half-dozen local League 1 clubs didn’t sign. In 2017, Hemel used 45 players and only beat outpost strugglers South Wales and Oxford. In 2018, they moved training to Sheffield. Same result. Over their final three seasons, they lost 66 of their 73 games. That takes its toll.

It is worth looking at the reasons why Hemel failed and why only two clubs – London Skolars and Coventry Bears – have successfully transformed from amateur clubs to the professional ranks since Featherstone Rovers did it 100 years ago. Launched in 1981, Hemel were the only club in the south with their own ground and clubhouse, an array of junior teams that had produced future internationals Dan Sarginson and Kieran Dixon, and a lottery scheme that helped establish them in their working-class community. They attracted regular three-figure gates and were like many leading amateur clubs across the north.

Going professional brought with it complications. Local amateurs who had previously paid subs to play were replaced by insufficiently talented outsiders who were paid; despite investment, the ground remained way below professional standard; volunteers were reluctant to give up their time for free when others were employed; and spectators did not like paying to watch their team getting thumped. Things fall apart. Having sold their RFL membership to Perez, Hemel reverted to being an amateur club, staggering through the Southern Conference League season. At least they are still alive, unlike Oxford.

The perambulations of Perez’s project raises serious questions about the RFL’s licensing process. It suggests any owner of a struggling club could just sell it to someone who wants a professional rugby club somewhere else. Only the RFL board can veto the proposal or give it the green light. League 1 clubs are up in arms at not being asked their opinion on Ottawa moving to Cornwall. And yet the RFL have been planning this all along. “The ambition for Cornwall to have a League 1 club has been on the RFL radar for a long time,” revealed Cornwall’s commercial director Rob Butler. “There has been a working business and development plan for a number of years.”

Given that the RFL are believed to be shaping the components of a new Super League 2 with the prospect of enhanced funding for 10 second-tier clubs, investors seeking a professional sports club on the cheap could do worse than look at rugby league. And there appears to be little to stop custodians of clubs that are struggling in the shadows of Super League giants – say, Keighley Cougars, Swinton or Hunslet – from selling their RFL membership to wealthy new owners who want to move them to cities without professional rugby: Norwich, Sunderland or Milton Keynes, perhaps.

What are portrayed by the governing body – and the sport as a whole – as century-old clubs at the heart of their communities now appear to be mere franchises whose licenses can be moved seemingly anywhere in the world without consultation. Worrying times.

Fielding a team that would not look out of place at the top of the Championship or bottom reaches of Super League, big-spending Lézignan have predictably stormed to the top of the Elite 1 with three straight wins – and that’s before James Maloney makes his first appearance. Captained by another Antoni Maria, and with more former Dragons Jason Baitieri and Krisnan Inu debuting off the bench, Lezignan repeated last year’s championship final win over neighbours Carcassonne, winning 30-16 on Sunday in a game televised live. They will take some stopping.

Four years without a Grand Final appearance and the Leeds hierarchy have lost patience, giving the green light to a big-name overhaul by Richard Agar. To make space in the team for incoming star half-backs Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer, and in the salary cap given the arrival of Ireland forward James Bentley and Kiwi David Fusitu’a, England scrum-half Luke Gale has signed for Hull, following centre Konrad Hurrell joining his Tonga coach Kristian Woolf at St Helens.

To sign Gale Hull have had to move on one of their stalwarts. After eight years on Humberside, scrum-half Marc Sneyd has gone home, re-signing for Salford where he will be coached by new boss Paul Rowley. The internal Super League market has been busy with 36 players moving between top-flight clubs, another dozen coming from the NRL, and nine stepping up from the Championship.

The season may be over but rugby league connections still cropped up in unexpected places last week. Samuel Gigot, the surprisingly tall brother of Toulouse star Tony, had his hands full playing centre-back for Spartak Moscow at Leicester in the Europa League. Tyrel Lomax – son of former North Queensland Cowboy John and nephew of ex Shuddersfield Giant David – helped the All Blacks win in Italy. Then former Keighley forward Grant Doorey was coaching Tonga in their thrashing at the hands of England, whose attack was masterminded by Martin Gleeson. And on Sunday evening St Albans Centurions juniors’ centre Huw Dawson, just 17, played in St Albans City’s shock FA Cup win over Forest Green Rovers. Dawson has already appeared at Wembley: as a mascot for England before their World Cup semi-final defeat by New Zealand in 2013.

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