A whole new ball game for Liverpool

On Saturday Liverpool Lions first team posted their third win of the season – a 40-36 triumph over St Helens-based Garswood Stags. The result means that the Lions remain unbeaten at De La Salle Academy, their home venue in Croxteth. The north Liverpool suburb is, like the rest of the city, more readily associated with the round-ball game– Wayne Rooney is a native of Croxteth – but the Lions are making excellent progress, with plans in place to establish rugby league at community level across Liverpool.

The man behind all this is Lions club manager Nick Moon. Nick’s association with rugby league began when his St Helens-supporting step-father took him to watch Saints-Wigan Boxing Day and Good Friday derbies – in rebellious fashion Nick decided to become a Wigan supporter. His connection to Liverpool came through marriage to a Scouser.

He explains: “She said to me ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a rugby league club here?’. I said ‘Yes’, and it just happened to coincide with the RFL’s push to get rugby league in Liverpool. I was approached by the RFL to get involved and it went from there six years ago”. 

Six years later the Lions run teams at open age, u-18s and u-14s, have founded a wheelchair team, and have a ladies team in training ready to join a league in 2015.  In 2011 the Lions also became the first rugby league club in Liverpool to be awarded Clubmark accreditation.   

The club’s labours have already started to bear fruit. Josh Johnson, part of the Lions’ 2012 u-16s NWRL Championship-winning side, was signed by Widnes, and made his u-19s debut for the Vikings against Castleford last week. Caylem Williams, one of Johnson’s championship-winning team mates, also had a spell at Widnes before returning to the Lions – he is now the division’s top try-scorer, and he doesn’t turn 17 until next month. Others have been the focus of interest from Wigan and Warrington.  

League in Liverpool

Rugby league is not an entirely new thing in Liverpool. Liverpool City RFC was founded in 1905 – though only survived until 1907. The University of Liverpool played the first ever student rugby league fixture against Leeds in 1968, and rugby league is still played there, as well as Liverpool John Moores and Liverpool Hope universities – Liverpool and LJMU compete in the BUCS Student RL Northern Premier division, alongside the likes of Leeds Carnegie and the University of Hull.  

The well-travelled Wigan Highfield after one year in London settled in the city, playing as Liverpool Stanley (1934-50) – Stanley won the Lancashire League in 1936 but lost to Widnes in the Championship semi final – Liverpool City (1950-68) and Huyton (1968-84). After spells in Runcorn and St Helens the club ended its days at nearby Prescot, the re-branded Prescot Panthers lasting just two seasons until 1997.

In recent years a number of amateur clubs have been set up in Liverpool, including the likes of Liverpool Storm, Huyton Bulldogs and a short-lived third iteration of Liverpool City. The most notable of these was Liverpool Buccaneers, who in 2006 won the Cheshire Division and Rugby League Conference Regional Grand Final. The club spent two seasons in the RLC National Division. 

Now, however, Liverpool Lions are the only rugby league club in the city, a fact that Nick puts down to the lack of a development officer. The RFL and Liverpool City Council initially co-funded a development officer for the city, John Farrell, but unfortunately that funding was only available three years. 

“It’s a shame really because he did great work for us,” says Nick. “He was full time in Liverpool, so he really focused us. He was there to help the city, Liverpool City when they got going, and Liverpool Storm. It’s no coincidence as well that those two teams have not taken off as well and we’ve had no development officer. Now we’re now the only outlet for rugby league in Liverpool”.

First team and under-18s

The Lions open age team is currently a mix of players with rugby league and rugby union experience. The club joined the NWCL Entry League – the bottom level of the North West Counties pyramid – in 2013. The plan is for the current first-teamers to establish the side at that level, giving the current crop of u-18s a pathway into open-age rugby. 

“We’ve currently got an under-18s that will do two years at -18s because technically they’re under-17, and the aim is that they will feed the men’s team – those that don’t go off to do further education, etc”, explains Nick. 

“We seem to be picking up more and more rugby league-based players rather than rugby union players, but as long as we’re still heavily dependent on union lads we’re going to have to stick with Entry League – which will probably be this year and next year. Then the year after where I’ve got this core of -18s, they will then step up to the open-age team”. 

Nick believes that the u-18s side are making excellent progress towards that goal. “To be honest they’re playing against lads who are genuinely 18, so a lot of them are playing up against lads who are a lot bigger and a lot older. A lot of the lads we’re playing against have come out of Academy systems – they’ve not made it quite the way to pro. So there’s some really good players.

“We’re competing, but I think next year when they do their second year at -18s will be more of a telling year for us, and hopefully we’ll get into the top half of the table for that second year”.

The future

The club also operates an u-14s side, as well as training younger players with the aim of forming u-12 and u-10 sides in 2015. Recently the Lions – in conjunction with St Helens – ran a camp for u-7s, and once again invited every primary school in Liverpool to take part on a touch rugby competition for Years 5 and 6. 

“The idea is that they get into rugby Years 5 and 6, and then they go to high school that plays rugby league,” says Nick. “I think the more it gets played in the schools to be honest the more we’ll get them drifting into the game. The high schools really need to play rugby league in the summer for me – in their summer-term activities – and then as lads play years 7 and 8 they’ll get interested”.

The Lions’ present aim is to continue this work to the point where they can run sides at a whole variety of age groups. “I do feel it’s really, really growing fast – and we’re retaining players as well which is even more important. I can see us at some point, hopefully over the next five or six years having loads of youth and junior teams and potentially even two men’s teams – one in the Men’s League and hopefully another Entry League team”.

It is evident from what Nick says that he and others are creating not just one team but an entire rugby league system for Liverpool, with the game being introduced to schools across the city, and a pathway through the club from u-10s to first team. What is even more impressive is that of more than 150 registered players at all ages, the vast majority of them are Scousers. 

“All the kids – the younger age groups – are definitely Liverpool born and bred. The -18s are Liverpool born and bred. The men’s team, 90 per cent I would say. There’s a couple of lads from over the water on the Wirral, and we’ve got some from Southport. We’ve got some lads who have moved into Liverpool – like a lad from Warrington who lives in Liverpool – a lad who’s come from Cumbria, he used to play for Kells, again lives in Liverpool now. And the bulk of them are Liverpool born and bred”.

Given the incredible progress that has been made over the last six years, the comprehensive plans and vision for the future, as well as the number of Scousers taking up the Greatest Game for the very first time, there is every reason to be optimistic about the future of rugby league in Liverpool.

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