Even the most ambitious Championship clubs can’t stand in the way when Super League clubs come knocking for their players.
Leeds coach Rohan Smith has made no secret of his plans to look at the Championship for recruitment, particularly with salary cap management in mind.
The Rhinos moved for highly-rated full-back Luke Hooley, who has starred for Batley in recent seasons, as well as Wales international centre Luis Roberts from Leigh. Toby Warren has made the step up from York, while back-rower Leon Ruan has moved to Headingley from League 1 side Doncaster.
One club that has seen benefit to this recruitment approach is Salford, a club that has continued to punch above its weight on the pitch despite not spending as much as their competition.
Both Deon Cross and Tyler Dupree made the move from Widnes, and have kicked on not only to establish themselves as solid Super League players, but gain international recognition via England Knights too.
The latest big move has seen prolific winger Tee Ritson swap Barrow for Super League champions St Helens in an eye-catching deal.
Saints have signed the Thailand-born speedster on a season-long loan deal, with a commitment to buy out the final year of his contract at the Matt Johnson Prestige Stadium should he impress sufficiently.
As part of the agreement, Ritson is likely to be made available for Barrow throughout 2023, when not required by the Saints first team.
The running of rugby league clubs ranges from the cloak and dagger approach to the downright ludicrous, but Barrow continue to show great transparency and openness to their operation. In recent years, the club has positioned itself at the heart of its community in a way probably greater than most other clubs in the pyramid. Their off-field activity has helped underpin growth on the pitch, that saw them reach the Championship play-offs last season in their first season back at that level.
It was that progress that brought attention to Ritson, who formed an exciting right edge with Hakim Miloudi which contributed 45 tries to the Raiders finishing fourth.
Barrow were in perhaps the unique position of being a part-time club, but with a player whose livelihood was entwined with them – with Ritson combining playing with his role in the club’s community foundation.
With him under contract, they could stand firm in asking for a fee due to this – something that isn’t always an option to other clubs who have part-time players.
The majority of Championship players combine their rugby with a job away from the sport, meaning that when an offer comes from a Super League club to go full-time, it means a serious decision needs to be made.
Clubs don’t want to stand in the way of human beings of a certain age, or with a burning desire to be a full-time professional sportsman, and prevent them from taking up a life-changing move.
That is often to their detriment. They could sit tight, keep the player, deny him that opportunity to move up, and carry on. But it may well put off other similar players from plying their trade with them in future.
But that’s no consolation to fans of Championship clubs, who see their best players picked off by Super League clubs which could halt the progress of their own club, when they of course want to see the best players remain to lead their club to success.
“Sometimes in life you need to look after people”
It was criticism of the Ritson deal that prompted Barrow chairman Steve Neale to post a very transparent update on the club’s social media channels, explaining the move in a Q&A format.
It addressed some of the questions asked by fans, including whether the club received a fee, why they decided to let him go and why it was a loan deal and not permanent.
It said: “When Tee Ritson negotiated his contract in 2021, he agreed to sign a three-year deal only with the proviso that a Super League release clause was inserted. To protect the club, we negotiated with Tee that the Super League club would have to pay a specific lump sum for him to leave.
“It is incorrect that we won’t get any money. In fact, Barrow Raiders are receiving a significant fee.
“In some ways it was to protect Tee and the options were discussed with him. Tee didn’t want to play for any other Championship club and the deal allows Barrow to recall him at any time that Tee doesn’t make the St.Helens squad. If he had signed for Saints and hadn’t made the team, there was a danger of Tee having to play reserve grade rugby or being loaned to another Championship club.
“We have received a lump sum, all Tee’s wages will be paid by St.Helens, if he isn’t picked for Saints then he is available for Barrow, all medical fees are paid by Saints, if he isn’t signed by Saints for 2024 he is contracted to Barrow.
“Best case is we have Tee for the whole season with all his wages and a lump sum paid by Saints. Worst case is that he makes the grade with Saints and never plays for Barrow again but in that scenario, we receive the full compensation as agreed in his contract.
“We want Tee to make the grade, we aren’t a club to stand in the way of a player’s ambitions. We would love to see him on TV every week scoring the types of tries we have become used to. Sometimes in life you need to look after people. We believe that stands us best in the long run.”
Other players making the move up from the Championship are full-timers Adam Sidlow and Sam Stone who have made the move to Salford from Leigh, while the Leopards have brought in Nathan Wilde from Newcastle Thunder.
Salford have also signed Featherstone back-rower Ben Hellewell, and former Warrington youngster Morgan Smith gets another chance in the top flight with Wakefield.