Time for RL to take a chance, and scout outside the heartlands

For all kinds of positive reasons, rugby league needs to start seriously looking at players in different parts of the world apart from the M62 corridor.

A raft of countries now have rugby league competitions, and there are more internationals being played between a greater variety of countries than ever before.

And, despite what many of the numerous cynics our sport spawns might say, the majority of players in those national sides are not heritage players, but domestically based and raised.

Speaking to Shaun Lunt about his new business venture last week really brought the issue home.

If Lunt, someone who was born and bred in Cumbria, supposedly one of our heartlands, found it tricky to be spotted, what chance does someone in Hawick, Wicklow or Belgrade have?

This is not only a masssive shame, it is hurting the prospects that the sport has to grow in countries which would add massively to our commercial potential.

Just this week, Czech TV has begun to broadcast NRL games with Czech commentary. Are players in the Czech Republic going to have any chance in the future of fulfilling a dream of playing professionally?

Well, as it stands at the moment, anyone in these countries with any talent would do as well swapping to soccer or similar, because they have almost zero chance of any professional club in the UK taking a chance on them.

This is surely where the League 1 clubs have a role to play, especially those outside the traditional heartlands.

Perhaps it is time to offer some kind of financial incentive to League 1 teams to take players from countries which do not currently have professional teams of their own.

Money is limited in our game, yet the RFL is a profitable orgnisation, and surely the means exist to offer some kind of incentive to smaller clubs, who could use the boost in attention and profile that more exotic signings might bring.

Coaches such as Mark Aston and Brian and Tony Smith have spoken in the recent past about how players in Ireland and Serbia could play semi-professionally in League 1, and develop themselves accordingly.

But there are few clubs who seem willing to take a chance on such players as Stevan Stevanovic from Serbia or Casey Dunne from Ireland.

STEVAN STEVANOVIC HIGHLIGHTS

And stil we have coaches in the amateur game complain about expansion after one-sided cup ties in the Challenge Cup.

That kind of small ‘c’ conservative thinking that plagues our game is an embarrassment, to be quite honest.

The idea that everything would just be fine in our game if we focused entirely on our ‘own patch’ to the exclusion of everything else is one of the main reasons rugby union now dominates the sporting headlines.

There is too much aimless navel gazing and an almost aggressive, bigoted myopia in some sectors of rugby league. Both these factors lead to a complete unwillingness to take risks on any player who did not grow up in the M62 corridor, or in Australia.

This reluctance seems to have worsended as the siege mentality in our sport has grown. Indeed, we seem almost stuck in a cycle of paranoia and resentment, which serves only to deepen our marginalisation.

A good way of breaking out of this, and increasing the appeal of our game is to look outside our heartlands for talent.

A player like Stevanovic, for example, would be a great ambassador for our game in Europe, if he was playing professionally in the UK.

Big, fast and talented, he also speaks perfect English and conducts himself in an exemplary fashion. A Serb playing in our game would be a media story in itself, which would help gain traction in the southern-based media.

We used to bring in a hell of a lot of talent from rugby union, back when that code was nominally amatuer, and now we don’t.

That suggests that we have a smaller pool of talent on which to draw than we used to, despite the expansion of the sport to other regions of Britain.

So it is time to open up the pathways to more players and see what we can find in rugby league’s growing band of nations.

Scotland and Ireland would be relatively simple places to start looking.

But now there is also Belgium, Italy, Spain, Serbia, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, Ukraine, Russia and soon Poland, as well as Ghana in Africa.

Time for our sport to become truly international, and for some UK clubs to take chances and lead the way.

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