Ralph Rimmer, the RFL’s Chief Operating Officer, is to meet community clubs in the North West on Monday to discuss an ongoing dispute over the format of the junior game.
The North West Counties Juniors League has refused to take up the RFL’s recommended format for Primary Rugby League from 2016, devised to increase participants.
It recommends that at the Under 7’s age group, games will be played with a maximum of five players per side, increasing to maximum six-a-side for Under 8s and maximum seven-a-side to Under 9s in future years.
The format, which has drawn praise in certain areas of the country, was voted in by the RFL’s community board and is recommended by the governing body’s Operational Rules.
It is designed to allow “all kids to play for all of the time”, with multiple games being played at the same time, rather than meaning players are left out.
In a squad of 25 players, a game in the previous format (9-a-side) might mean up to 16 players would be left stood on the sidelines and potentially lose interest and be lost from the game.
However, the North West clubs have instead internally agreed a new 7-a-side format as a compromise, which has been “unanimously accepted” throughout the region.
Last month, a letter was sent to North West clubs stating that their existing insurance cover may no longer apply if they refused to adopt the new formats.
It has resulted in a stand-off between the league and the RFL, while it could also compromise financial agreements involving professional clubs through the Sky Try scheme.
Sky Try funds 24 “deliverers”, primarily through club foundations, including north west clubs Salford, St Helens, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan.
As part of the agreement, clubs are required to hit targets on participation, something which may be compromised should their relationships with community clubs break down due to the ongoing dispute.
Rimmer, one of the RFL’s most senior officials, will attend Leigh Miners Welfare on Monday to discuss from the governing body’s perspective why they feel the format change is necessary.
At least one club foundation, believed to be Warrington, has already reached out to its partner community clubs to try and maintain relationships.
The Sky Try scheme is delivered in primary schools, targeting 8-9 year olds, who will receive a minimum of five weeks consecutive coaching, followed by a recruitment event such as an assembly or participation festival.
After capturing the interest of children, the idea is that the schools then signpost them to their local community club.
The new Primary Rugby League format has been adopted as part of the scheme, with mainly touch being played in the schools due to the involvement of children with varying degrees of skill, ability and size.
Rugby league suffered significant cuts in its funding from Sport England due to decreasing participation numbers, which prompted the new format.
Such is the fall-out over the issue, talks have already been held about the North West Counties league walking away from the RFL altogether and continue as a standalone association across all age groups from Under 7s to open age.
As yet, it’s unclear what a possible compromise solution could entail. However, the primary concern is ensuring that children exposed to rugby league in schools are able to be retained within the game at their local community clubs.