Rebel rugby league spreads across Europe, or does it?

Anthony Micallef

Belgium’s North Brussels Gorillas face Amsterdam Cobras (Photo: Kevin Scott)

Sixteen clubs are set to feature in a Champions League football-like rugby league competition in 2021 – or is the proposed Euro XIII’s championship all just a bit of fluff?

As the unveiling of reigning Norwegian champions Stavanger RK as the final club to feature in this round-of-16 competition slated for a February 2021 kick-off, the public awaits this rather drawn out process for some concrete details without the fog that has clouded it so far.

For one, it doesn’t seem clear between the earmarked clubs whether the tournament is privately funded by the Euro XIIIs, as a number of clubs actually understand they need to self-fund for what will be at most four matches across European cities including Valencia, Lignano and Birmingham.

And sure, there’s some reasonable doubt being bandied about on topics such as money, the teams and quite simply the finer details.

Let’s start with financials. The competition is an expensive exercise, but how much revenue could this proudly blue-collar sport generate without a serious backer to help it on its feet for a competition of this magnitude?

The selection of teams, while having a good spread, is a bit weak in the middle. It’s like a sandwich. Sure, the idea of a sandwich excites me, but without a filling, it’s just not going to satisfy me, nor the average Joe. You’ve got clubs that haven’t played much serious rugby league for years on end.

Lack of detail. Simply said, we’ve heard a lot of buzzwords; development, due diligence, good governance – but we still wait with baited breath for some real boxes to be ticked. An official website would be a good start! 

Euro XIIIs’ General Manager Dean Buchan hasn’t responded to requests via social media and those around him to discuss the tournament with me directly – he also hasn’t responded to several questions sent from Love Rugby League via email – but despite the smoke and mirrors, Rotterdam Pitbulls coach Jason Bruygoms says the competition is a pipedream come true.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time as the coach and chairman of the Pitbulls. That’s to expand, and trying to secure fixtures with other European teams,” says the Pitbulls head coach who originally hails from New Zealand.

Sure clubs across Europe have been dreaming about this for some time, but we don’t know the key driver behind Buchan’s grand Euro XIIIs plans.

Quietly, a number of Europe’s senior rugby league figures across are taking a united stand against the Euro XIIIs concept, but for now they’re keeping mum.

No less than five senior rugby league aficionados in Europe alone – have a lot to say, but won’t say anything at all. Sworn to secrecy indeed, or is it for the moment?

The unanswered questions asked of Euro XIIIs

  • Logistics of the competition: who is footing the bill for the transportation of players across Europe?
  • Commercial interest: given the struggles of Catalans in attracting a TV deal for Super League, how does Euro XIIIs plan to attract broadcast/commercial partners?
  • Situation with the RLEF: I understand that the competition can run without the RLEF, but where does that leave you in terms of referees particularly?
  • Player pool: based on the draft locations, do you expect the players to be local to those areas (e.g. Australia, Spain etc) and be mixed with some players local to their home teams (Moldova etc). If so, has there been any consideration to visa implications?
  • Governance: who is involved with Euro XIIIs and how is it governed?

Red Star RLC from Belgrade, one of the most celebrated rugby league clubs in mainland Europe, would have been the only Serbian entry in the Euro XIII’s if it were down to recently resigned club president and club stalwart Zeljko Delic.

Delic presented the idea of a Pan-European club competition at a conference to Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) members in Belgrade in 2015.

And Bruygoms, the veteran of 12 national team caps for the Netherlands at hooker, says the idea of an international club competition was first mooted almost a decade ago in meetings in Frankfurt, London and Manchester, ‘It was always a hot topic and something we would always talk about and bounce ideas off each other about how we could start up a European club competition and only now someone has put all that talk into action. It’s an idea that I think everybody wants to succeed’.

Bruygoms reasons that the inaugural 16 clubs have ample time to finance for the competition, “Funding is a problem that presents itself to most developing rugby league nations and the Netherlands are no different. We’ve been given eight months to get things sorted, and we’ve started by telling all our players that they’ll be expected to self-fund themselves.”

Enter, a resurrected territory of sorts, Moldova – via the entry of rugby converts Chisinau Scorpions who are set to field a team proudly varying in youth and experience, and wait for it – draft players.

Eugeniu Procopi, CEO of Chisinau Scorpions, tells me the Scorpions have been “born to give life to the game of rugby league in Moldova after a long absence.”

Moldova are probably best known for their foray into the 13-a-side rugby code which saw them face the likes of France and Ireland in the 1990’s, and notably a 24-19 win over Morocco in 1995.

Procopi says “A European competition was a great opportunity to help grow a sustainable sports business model here in Moldova.

“For now, we plan to build an all-Moldovan team. The squad will be joined later by draft players that will help us grow, and bring to us a new rugby (league) culture.”

If you haven’t gathered already, there’s a good spread of teams, each from different countries, with a sprinkling of perhaps disgruntled clubs from the 15-a-side code, together with some clubs that could historically be labelled as rebellious by way of their administrators’ ways with their respective governing bodies or that they’re straight-out unhappy with the opportunities provided for amateur to semi-pro clubs by Europe’s rugby league governors.

Stavanger RK, who are again originally a rugby union club, made the transition to league in 2017 thanks to Nathan Cummins, and I couldn’t but namedrop the fact he’s the brother of former Wallaby Nick Cummins, yes – the Honey Badger.

Nathan was also club president last year, but in 2020, the player coach that plays at six and seven, enjoys it more at five-eighth – and sees the Euro XIII’s as a great opportunity.

“It provides a greater incentive to win your domestic comp. Players also get exposure and a chance to meet better opposition.”

Better opposition is certainly an attraction, Stavanger entered the rugby league fold four years ago and have won the last three Norwegian titles ahead of seven other clubs in what is one of Europe’s truly national championships.

Another Australian exiled in Scandinavia, Nathan says Stavanger have “enjoyed rugby league’s relative simplicity, and the speed of it makes it attractive for Norwegian players.”

Over to you Euro XIIIs, until further notice, the jury’s still out. 

The Euro XIII’s is a Pan-European elimination rugby league championship to be held for the first time in 2021.

February 2021

Anadolu XIII (Turkey)
Birmingham Jaguars (England)
Budapest RL (Hungary)
Chisinau Scorpions (Moldova)
Copenhagen RLFC (Denmark)
Dublin Blues (Ireland)
Edinburgh Eagles (Scotland)
Leoni Veneti (Italy)
North Brussels Gorillas (Belgium)
Rhodes Knights (Greece)
Rhondda Outlaws (Wales)
Rotterdam Pitbulls (Netherlands)
Skane Stags (Sweden)
Stavanger RK (Norway)
Valencia Huracanes (Spain)
Vrchlabi Mad Squirrels (Czech Republic)