The blueprint for success in Cornwall

Kian Morgan

Cornish Rebels Development Director Rob Butland has been talking about how rugby league can grow in Cornwall.

Initially born in Pontefract, Butland moved down to Cornwall at the age of 14 with his family. However, he soon found out rugby league was not played in area.

A couple of exhibition matches were played in Cornwall during the 1960s, but apart from that, no rugby league was played in the area. It was predominately rugby union.

After spending time away from the game, Butland then joined a group of people and managed to create the annual game between Devon and Cornwall. The first match was played in 2010.

Cornish Rebels success

Then in 2013, he and John Beach helped to co-find the Rebels, and put them into the South West Premier League. They enjoyed initial success with winning the League Leaders Shield and reaching the Grand Final. But they lost against Devon Sharks.

A year later, they were able to avenge that defeat and win the Grand Final.

On the experience of running a side, Butland said: “It’s as challenging as it is rewarding. You have to have a thick skin.

“The challenges may not be something you expect, but we have always had a huge amount of positivity from players that have played rugby league in Cornwall.

“They have all been rugby union players exclusively, but they have come over and play rugby league in the summer. And they love it.

“The challenge, like with any community club, is getting it to pay for itself and being sustainable. You have to try and build a positive perception of the club, and we knew we had to build a pathway as well.”

However, in 2019, the Rebels made the decision to withdraw their side from the league due to a lack of competitive action. It became one of the shortfalls of playing in a league with teams that were predominately from Devon.

On the decision to pull out, he added: “The one thing we have always been able to say, is we have fulfilled our obligations.

“There was only once in the years we competed in the league that we didn’t fulfil an away game. That was because of injury, rather than players being unavailable. We probably had the best fixture completion rate in the south west.

“On the flip side, clubs stopped travelling to us. That causes no end of trouble, because people stop coming and stop taking the day off work to play.

By 2019, we had barely played a home game for two years. We were travelling to Devon every other week, and teams were not travelling to us.

“Me and John wanted a professional club in Cornwall for a long time. But we were spending time and resources on a league where it was a one-way street.

“When teams did travel to us, we could get 400-500 a game. The people of Cornwall enjoy rugby league. The only reason it hasn’t been played traditionally down here is because there hasn’t been an opportunity. That is what we are trying to change.

“It wasn’t something we wanted to do, but we did it for the right reasons- we have to focus on the long-term goals. We played games before and we will play games again. We now have a close partnership with Cornwall RLFC, who I am also involved with as Head of Commercial.”

New Cornwall club

As a result of the COVID pandemic, Ottawa Aces decided not to compete in League One. That meant their licence was available to go to another team.

Their owner Eric Perez then made the decision to base his team in Cornwall. Butland also spoke of the conversations the pair had about basing their team there.

He said on Perez: “We were instrumental in it. Eric, myself, John and one of the Rebels directors Colin were talking for about seven or eight months prior to the launch.

“We knew Eric was looking to get the club back to the UK, and we were talking to him about the Rebels, the work we have done and our experiences.

“The Rebels have had a business plan to get into League One for five years. Everything we have been doing has been working towards a League One club in Cornwall.

“This is on the back of 10 years of hard work and development. Cornwall has a lot to offer rugby league, and rugby league has a lot to offer Cornwall.

“Eric is mad passionate about rugby league. I’m a believer if you have that, you can have it all. He is driving it from the ground, and we are confident about the direction we are heading in.

The future

As for the Rebels, the future is looking bright for them. Their Women’s team will play their second season in the Women’s Super League South, and their Men’s team will return to competitive action.

On the Rebels, he said: “Next year, the women will continue in the Super League south. That is a key area of our development, we see it as vital and we have high hopes in the long-term.

“The men’s Rebels team will be a feeder club for Cornwall RLFC in terms of talent on the ground.

“When we do the open trial with Cornwall, there will be players who are prospects for the future, will play for the Rebels in the summer.

“We are also setting up our own foundation. We want to build that pathway to produce players for Cornwall RLFC and potentially play for England.”

Cornwall for the Super League?

He also believes that Cornwall could reach the Super League one day.

Butland said: “With the greatest of respects to the clubs in league one, we don’t want to be kicking around at the bottom of league one forever.

“From a Cornwall RLFC point of view, we want to get into the Super League and we are doing that in a way we believe is sustainable. It may take us three years, it may take us 10 years, but we will get there.

“The potential is massive. Cornwall has more people living in there than Wigan, St Helens and Widnes combined. There is no reason why the next Sam Burgess, Jason Robinson or Gareth Widdop could be growing up in St Austell, Truro or Camborne.

“The biggest problem for rugby league is geography. Full stop. Expansion will solve every problem rugby league has. If you increase participation, you will increase the standard. That is just statistics.

“England’s best player could be growing up in London, Newcastle or Bristol. We need to make our game nationwide, it should be on top of everyone’s development plan. It will make the game stronger in every single area.”

Read More: Neil Kelly to host open player trial at Cornwall

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