Blackbrook Royals U18 – The 2018 Invincibles

Alex Yoxall

Undefeated. Three Trophies.

Blackbrook Royals Under-18s have won it all in 2018; The National Cup, Lancashire Cup and Premier Division Title. Upon the conclusion of their fantastic year, I had the pleasure of picking the brain of their Head Coach, Paul Gartland, on all things community Rugby League.

Success in sport is measured on winning. It is a deeply embedded strand within sporting DNA – to truly eclipse in sport, you must win.

Yet when speaking to Paul Gartland, 45, the head coach of Blackbrook U18s – that was the last thing on his list of priorities.

He instead expressed his belief that putting too much pressure on young players at community level doesn’t do much good.

His idea is that the level of consistency they achieved throughout the year comes with the lads having a good time.

“I don’t flog them at training – I don’t shout and scream. It’s about having a laugh and playing well comes with that sometimes. If they’re under pressure they don’t tend to try as hard I don’t think.”

It was from this that I asked Paul that whilst they focused on having a good time, surely they worked extremely hard to achieve such success? His response was:

“I’d love to say extremely! [laughs) But you take it with a pinch of salt. We do very limited fitness because trying to get them all together on 1 night a week in extremely difficult – they work a lot of them now. We may get 10 one week and 18 another. So all we do is run through set-plays.

“I think if you can keep a good group of lads, for example the bulk of my lads are all Blackbrook lads or at least have been for the last 2 years – and about 15 have been at Blackbrook since they were 10. Because they are Blackbrook kids they are just used to what I do with them.”

It was this relaxed but intrinsically genuine approach that impressed me whilst speaking with Paul. His focus was on contentment and togetherness, rather than winning no matter the cost.

By focusing on allowing the young players to enjoy themselves and by providing a comfortable platform – the players themselves are able to be the conductor of their own symphony.

I did my utmost to give him credit that I thought was deserved but when I suggested his coaching must have played a massive role he chuckled:

“Not really mate no! I’ve had them long enough. We have won trophies before so it’s not as if they’ve never won anything. For the past 4 years we have come second in the league every year.

“We have been bridesmaids and it takes some doing to be consistently decent year in year out. They are a decent team, I wasn’t surprised by them.

“I thought we’d win at least 1 trophy and then I thought you know what they’ve a chance at winning 2 and then it just carried on.

“I’d love to say it was all down to me!”

The rest as they say, is history.

Paul’s U-18s team didn’t just win 1 trophy, they won the lot and did so undefeated. An achievement that deservedly should be screamed from the rooftops.

Such a level of consistency is to be applauded, especially for 17 and 18 year old lads, some of which have conflicting interests with work commitments and educational promises to uphold.

The highlight reel of memories from this season will be endless for all of those involved, but I thought I’d ask Paul to give me his stand out moment from the year:

“I think for me the National Cup win was the best, the National Cup final against probably the second best team in the comp, Leigh Miners who we beat last Sunday.

“I personally have never won the National Cup and none of the lads had either, not one – so it was nice to say we’ve won it.”

Much akin to how Paul has shrugged off the praise I attempted to lay upon him, he continued to express the importance those away from the spotlight, the volunteers, have on the community game as a whole.

“I think and I’m not just saying it, they’re probably more important than us fellas who go down and organise training.

“They do all the stuff in the background, raising money for teams, raising funds, up until last year Blackbrook didn’t pay subs so it was really hard work.

“Without them we would be absolutely zero. I think that’s what Blackbrook has actually got right at the moment.”

Paul believes that a great deal of this is down to the excellent work Blackbrook Chairman, Graham Roberts, puts in to the community.

“Graham puts in endless hours and nothing is too much for him.”

However, when I asked him how important he sees grassroots Rugby League – his concern was apparent.

“I played in the community game and I know it was a long time ago now but when I played it was buzzing. Now, the community game is falling apart. Teams are struggling to get lads, teams are struggling to put sides out, it’s a sorry state of affairs.

This viewpoint is echoed by many involved within the grassroots game and with Sport England confirming last year that Rugby League ranked as the 27th most-popular sport in England based on ages 16 and over – it is hard to disagree with them.

Paul also honestly expressed that he thought that scholarship programmes are somewhat at fault.

“Not going too much into politics I blame scholarships for that. When kids don’t get them scholarships at 14 , I had it with my team when I had them at 14, they pack it in.

“They just think I’m not going to make it. Everyone wants to be a professional sports person but in reality not many do. It should be about sticking with your mates and having a bit of a laugh.”

I felt genuinely impressed speaking with Paul and LoveRugbyLeague thanks Blackbrook Royals for putting us in contact with the Royals U-18s coach.

His relaxed morality and refreshingly honest outlook was a breath of fresh air.

In a Rugby League landscape that has recently seen more dark days than bright – the story of Blackbrook Royals U-18s and their invincible treble winning year does put a smile on my face.

Before finishing the interview, Paul had one last message to give – and it was for his players.

“I just want to say thanks. I’ve told my players this already.

“We’ve had some funny times, the national cup coach trips away excreta. We’ve had a good laugh and I just hope they have as well.”