Why 2015 will be the year of Rugby League in the North East

Jeff Ball, Chairman of the North East’s biggest community rugby league club, Cramlington Rockets discusses what there is to look forward to next year and how the sport in growing in the region.

Magic Weekend’s journey to Newcastle arguably started in 1815. When George Stephenson presented his latest invention to the erudite Philosophical and Literary Society of Newcastle, little did he know it would produce one of the most recognisable cultural identities in the world. His audience marvelled at his ground-breaking safety lamp for miners, as George, aka Geordie, had created the “Geordie Lamp”.

It quickly became synonymous with the coal-rich North East but nowadays the meaning of a Geordie has evolved far from simply a soot-faced miner. Geordies now have a reputation of optimism, sociability and, crucially, an innate aptitude to enjoy themselves.

That is why the RFL decided to move the Magic Weekend to Newcastle in 2015, and we in the North East could not be more excited.

Magic Weekend has become a highlight of the sporting calendar, a unique event that sees all the teams in the First Utility Super League play an extra round of league fixtures at one venue across a weekend. Normally a carnival of rugby league anyway, the announcement it would be visiting Newcastle United’s St James’ Park in May for the very first time produced a crackle of anticipation from rugby league fans across the country.

The Geordie reputation coupled with an explosive set of fixtures is an exciting combination and represents a daring move for the Rugby Football League (RFL) to take one of its flagship events out of the ‘heartland’ of Yorkshire and Lancashire. 

The response has been overwhelmingly positive with a record number of tickets already sold with the phone lines barely open and 48% sold to people who have never attended a major rugby league event, a ringing endorsement that will please organisers. 

My biggest hope is that we can get as many children involved as possible and, to paraphrase that immeasurable Geordie, Sir Bobby Robson, watch as they climb the stadium steps for the first time, emerge into a cauldron of noise and, without being able to do anything about it, fall in love.

But the North East’s path to Magic Weekend is not a recent development.  Look back to the Millennium and rugby league in the North East has come a long way. I highlight this year as it saw the creation of my club, Cramlington Rockets (in the shadow of the home of the same George Stephenson who also built a notable train you may have heard of). Many other clubs have continued to pop up since then to produce a thriving junior and adult landscape. 

Like for most minority sports, it has not always been easy going. The recession proved to be a challenging time and funding cuts to governing bodies hit hard.  If it were not for the steely determination of the army of volunteers across the clubs, the damage could have been much worse.

In recent years though, an aura of optimism around the North East game has returned like never before.  

As much as Magic Weekend will showcase the sport to the region for one weekend, the progress expected from Gateshead Thunder this season should keep heads turned all year.

Having spent several years languishing at the bottom of the Kingstone Press Championship One league, the owners of Newcastle Falcons, Newcastle Rugby Limited stepped in last summer with a takeover bid and promptly started turning things around.

An average 2014 season almost turned into an excellent one as they were just pipped to one of the promotion spots in the play-off semi-finals, something they hope to improve upon at the next time of asking.

A move to Kingston Park and the state-of-the-art new 3G pitch will provide them with the dedicated home they have longed for and provide the sport with a focal point to gather around. It also means that the local rugby aficionados will be able to enjoy year-around entertainment with league’s summer season dovetailing with union’s winter union programme.

Thunder’s recruitment has gone into overdrive since receiving new backing and has already added the silky skills of Jordan Meads from New Zealand and a quartet of Papa New Guinea internationals, including the excellently named Mark Mexico.

One to look out for is his compatriot, the highly sought after Gary Lo. A quick search on YouTube explains why so many NRL teams were miffed when Thunder snatched him from under their noses.

Down at the grassroots too, the progress being made is palpable, with everyone older and wiser and increasingly backed once again from the top of the game.

At a playing level, Embed the Pathway is the RFL’s new coaching initiative to improve the level of coaching for junior players across the country.  It is a ground-breaking move that will provide a forum to share ideas and best practice led by the region’s top coaching mentors, working together in an unprecedented way.

We are also starting to see the undoubted talent in the region rise to the surface.  Just this year, my club has seen one player selected for England Youth, another for Great Britain and Ireland Students and one sign full-time terms with Gateshead Thunder, our first professional player.

We are hoping to breach the 200 player mark in 2015 and we also made North East history in September by being the region’s first rugby league club to launch a Community Department.  The reception so far from local schools has been overwhelming and we are hoping to surpass our target of engaging 10,000 people in Northumberland with rugby league in the first twelve months.

To put that into context, we only had 40 players five years ago and no rugby league had ever been played in Northumberland before we relocated here in 2009.

Other clubs too are continuing to add new teams and Gateshead Storm’s First Team are preparing for their inaugural year playing in the National Conference League. A big step up but a great way to showcase North East talent across the country.

We may still be seen as a minority sport by some but all this plus the work of the North East Academy under the acclaimed Lee Crooks and a growing university scene means the heart of the North East game is beating strong as ever.

So while the headlines and TV cameras will rightly focus on St James’ Park for one weekend, we’ll be looking for the ripples of positivity left behind and hoping to build on the memories created for an audience both old and new.  Because when it comes down to it, sport in its purest form always has been and always will be simply an opportunity to create memories that last forever. I cannot wait to see what we can create.

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