Very rarely will you have heard Namibian rugby union and Cornish rugby league mentioned in the same breath: but then again, very few people have a story to tell quite like Neil Kelly. The 59-year-old’s journey has taken him from the heartlands of rugby league, playing for clubs such as Featherstone and Wakefield with great distinction, to a coaching career that has included stints in Ireland, America and Namibia.
This Saturday, Kelly begins arguably the most intriguing challenge of his rugby career as he takes charge of Cornwall in their inaugural match as a rugby league club. Founded last November after a successful bid acquired the professional licence initially earmarked for a Canadian franchise in Ottawa that never materialised, the Rugby Football League’s approval of the Cornish bid, marks the first time in history the region has had a professional rugby league team.
It is the latest ambitious step in rugby league’s plans to expand beyond its heartlands and a fascinating moment for a region of more than 500,000 people that has only one other professional sporting team to its name, rugby union’s Cornish Pirates. “I’ve coached all over the world in so many environments, but never encountered anything like this,” Kelly tells the Guardian ahead of Cornwall’s first game in League 1, rugby league’s third tier, this weekend when they will face another expansion side, North Wales Crusaders.
“The real attraction was the fact it’s a start-up and I can help mould a club in my image, but also the region. It’s incredible, there’s so many people, and so many chances to get new people attracted to rugby league.” Cornwall will play their home games in Penryn and while previous expansion clubs have arrived in rugby league with a bluster of pomp and circumstance about their goals to reach the top, those on the ground in Cornwall are somewhat more measured.
They have assembled an inaugural squad mixed with experienced northern players – including the former Super League winner Anthony Mullally – and a group of Cornish rugby union players, some of whom will be playing their first ever game of league on Saturday, with a long-term plan in mind. “It was really important that it wasn’t a team of one or the other,” Rob Butland, one of the men behind the project, explains. “There’s a huge web of talent down here in Cornwall, and incredible athletes that love rugby.
“It was important we didn’t just go all-out and bring in a squad that had no connection with the region at all, though it means we’ll have to work harder on the field. This is a big moment for Cornwall, but a big moment for the sport.” This is not a project without some foundations, wel. Vir meer as 'n dekade, the Cornish Rebels have competed at amateur level in the south and has given men like Butland at least some experience to call upon when trying to lay down league roots in a union-dominated area.
“We’ve spent a long time doing it and whilst that has always had its challenges we’ve done a good job with what we were able to,”Verduidelik hy. “That was one thing, but now we’re in a national competition, with a chance to progress. The Rebels were the foundations, this is the real business now.” League 1 is a mix of traditional heartlands clubs including Oldham and Keighley, coupled with expansion projects like Midlands Hurricanes, North Wales and Cornwall.
With that in mind, there is perhaps no surprise those involved with Cornwall are expecting some tough, formative afternoons in their debut season against the division’s established sides. “I’m a bit nervous for the boys,” Kelly says. “For some of them, this is going to be their first game of rugby league. We’ve been thrown together, recruitment is ongoing and we’ve only had about an eight-week pre-season. Most clubs have at least 12.”
Kelly hopes Cornwall can be strong enough to finish above their expansion rivals in 2022, which in itself would be a huge achievement. But with the club promising a sustainable approach, this project is perhaps more geared towards long-term benefits for rugby league, with development programmes already being put in place to attract future rugby league players in Cornwall. “I’d ask all rugby league fans to be patient and look at the long-term vision we have here,” Kelly says. “If we can get this right as a game, we’re tapping into a region of 500,000 people for the first time.”
Butland agrees. “It’s probably bigger than any other expansion plan that we’ve ever seen,” he declares. “If we get Cornwall right, we’re suddenly way beyond rugby league’s heartlands. The problem rugby league has had in this country for years is that the best rugby league player in the world may never actually play the game because of where he was born. It’s projects like Cornwall that will change that.”