It’s easy to play pin a city on the map where rugby league should be played – but the reality is quite different.
One city quietly going about its business in expanding the greatest game is Coventry, where the Bears will enter their seventh season in the professional ranks in 2021 – some 23 years after the club was founded in 1998.
That year proved to be a good one too, with league wins over Keighley and Hunslet, adding to the record breaking attendance against Leeds, and going further than they had ever been before in the Challenge Cup, eventually going out to then Super League club Widnes.
Fan Dave Musson, who runs the club’s Bear Necessities podcast, chose that year to write a book detailing the club’s history – Forward – and has since released a second version to add details from 2019, where the club suffered somewhat from having to move around to play games while an artificial pitch was installed at their home ground.
Want a stocking filler for the Bears/expansion fan in your life? The revised edition of @davemusson's book Forward – which tells the story of our historic 20th anniversary season – is available now in paperback and Kindle formats!
— Coventry Bears (@CoventryBears) December 12, 2020
Musson said: “I grew up playing union. I got into rugby league at university in Sheffield, and then spent my third year in Perpignan. I played union one week and league the next, and as a winger in union I touched the ball three times all season, whereas in league I kept getting the ball!
“And then from February onwards on a Saturday, I woke up to get a croissant surrounded by lots of sunburnt men from the north west and wondered what was happening – and then it clicked, Super League!
“After university, I moved back to the Midlands, followed the Dragons for a bit and when we bought a house closer to Coventry and heard the Bears were accepted in to League 1, I went to their first game on a miserable and wet Good Friday against Oxford and they won!
“I was covering every game for the podcast and I knew it was an exciting year, and so I started writing the book early and the good stories just kept happening. I got to know more about the club, teasing out stories from the club’s history.
“The podcast boomed that year too. We had really good listeners from around the game, which is something typical of rugby league. You heard of the rugby league family and that was true, we had fans from all over listening to a podcast about Coventry Bears.”
Their model of expansion, led by tireless chairman Alan Robinson, has seen them steadily establish themselves in League One, and they have appointed Scotland international David Scott as player-coach for next season.
Doing things right, which means adding to the player pool with local players, often means a sacrifice has to be made when it comes to results. Anyone can pay over the odds to ship in players from the heartlands or Australia, but there’s no lasting legacy from doing that.
“It’s absolutely massive to bring through local players, and it’s a key part of the Bears future. The 2018 season was interesting as the club looked at its recruitment policy and wanted to put emphasis on local players, and the results were an incredible season.
“We’ve seen players like Jason Bass, now at York, come through and then the likes of Joe Batchelor and Joe Cator have come down and done well. Jacob Jones is a local lad who has just got a deal at London Broncos. There are little examples that prove the Bears are offering a viable option for people who like playing rugby to give league a go and that there is a viable pathway to progress in the game.
“People like an underdog. It’s the nature of people from the west Midlands. We’re quite humble. The challenge for the Bears is learning about it. If you live in Coventry, or Warwickshire, you’re spoilt for choice; ice hockey is successful, there’s Wasps and then speedway.
“People in Coventry are very keen to support a local team. The biggest challenge is getting the attention of the local media, and trying to get regular interaction with them has been frustrating. The coverage is very sporadic which has a knock on effect in terms of reaching the wider public. We’ve got a core bunch of fans who are really dedicated, and when new faces do come, they like the ground and the atmosphere and usually come back.”
Elsewhere in Coventry, the Ricoh Arena will host a game at the men’s World Cup later this year, when Australia entertain Scotland, some five years on from when they hosted a double header in the Four Nations.
Any fan that can maintain an interest in rugby league in an expansion area deserves credit, given the lack of coverage, attention and other people there is to engage with. One of the problems clubs like Coventry face is just simply not having anyone anywhere near them geographically.
Their traditional nearest rivals, going back to the Summer Conference and National League Three days, were Nottingham Outlaws, themselves 51 miles away.
Gloucestershire All Golds (54 miles), Oxford, (60 miles), Hemel Stags (73 miles) have all disappeared from the professional ranks with little more than a whimper.
Map is a little dated now put the potential for expansion and engagement of people is still huge for #rugbyleague in the Midlands. We have a big opportunity with the @RLWC2021 think of the population within the blue circle to go at for participation and watching our sport! pic.twitter.com/JPjDVLjd7B
— Alan Robinson (@CoventryBear) October 1, 2020
That leaves them slap bang in the middle of their two nearest clubs – Doncaster and London Skolars, who are situated roughly 95 miles away north and south respectively.
For context, the longest trip, excluding Catalans, in Super League next season is the 122 miles that separates Hull KR and St Helens.
Musson added: “It’s a challenge, more for rugby league as a whole. The games against Oxford, All Golds and Skolars, for example, are easier to market. It’s more practical. The Bears would love to have some more local teams. It’s a loss for the league that those others aren’t there. Bears are in no mans land currently. But there’s only so much they can do.
“It’s frustrating. Toronto was really exciting and it was gutting to see that fall through. The big thing with the Bears is just how meticulous Alan has been setting up and running the club, doing things in his own time and in own way. It would be incredible to have the opportunity to go up to the Championship, but he wouldn’t want to do that at the risk of the club’s sustainability. There’s that excited fan in me that would love Coventry to move up, but I wouldn’t want to risk what’s already been built, the brilliant work that’s been done.
— Coventry Bears (@CoventryBears) November 27, 2020
“Progress is bettering themselves each season. Showing the pathway for more players to come through, the opportunity to play in the professional game, and build the fanbase locally.
“The Bears have gone from a team the league targets as a win, to being a much more serious proposition, especially when teams come to Coventry. It’s just about competitive all the time, picking up some more wins. We beat Workington and Newcastle last year. We want people to love the day out at Coventry apart from the match, because it’s a battle against the Bears!
“I’m very happy with what the Bears are doing and the way they’re going about it, you can see a path for progress in a sustainable way. We don’t want to go boom and bust, we want longevity and to build those roots for the sport.”