A newly established Rugby League club in Brighton and Hove looks to reintroduce the sport in the coastal city – with both men’s and women’s teams – to ensure rugby league can both survive and thrive.
While sport continues to be disrupted – especially the grassroots game – a newly established rugby league club in Brighton and Hove is aiming to provide some sporting relief.
Set up earlier this month, Brighton and Hove Rugby League is forming both men’s and women’s teams – embedding the sport in the area through a sustainable, community-based club.
Founded by Phil Ward, a former Sussex Merlins league player and rugby coach, the club hopes to root itself within the city – to cater for the existing league player-pool and fan base, and for future fans.
Ward played and fell in love with league while at university – and has been involved with sports volunteering and coaching since he was 18. “My hope is that we can build a club to get more people into the game, but also a wider community so that rugby league becomes entrenched in the city,” he said. “Our focus is always on making sure it’s sustainable – ensuring we’re taking care of the future.”
With the Rugby League World Cup returning to British shores, the club hopes to utilise the groundswell of awareness and support of the game – while the inclusiveness of the cup is something that Ward wants to replicate. “I think it’s great that they’re doing men’s, women’s and wheelchair – I’m a believer that sport should be as inclusive as possible,” he said. “If you love your sport, you want as many people as possible to play it.”
Ward is keen to ensure the club can cater for everyone and both the men’s and women’s teams will be on ‘equal billing’ – building a club that’s open to all that love and want to play the sport. “We’re also running a social, ‘X-League’ team, which also allows us to run mixed-gender,” added Ward.
While the off-pitch focus is fully on sustainability and getting people involved, the on-field aim is to get teams out and playing. Participating in the Challenge Cup is an ambition for the club in the long-term.
“In the longer term, I would love to see the club play in the Challenge Cup – both men and women,” said Ward. “I think it’s a fantastic competition and has such a rich history. Just being part of it, even in the early rounds, would be an amazing experience – I also can’t find any record of a Sussex team taking part, so it would be history making as well!”
But for now, it’s about getting players signed up and fixtures booked in.
The view is to participate in a men’s league in 2022, while arranging as many fixtures as possible for the women’s team. “The difficulty isn’t just player recruitment, it’s also that there are very few women’s teams,” explained Ward. “It’s hard finding fixtures – but I know that it’s a hugely growing area of the game and that will eventually translate itself in the south.”
With lockdown pulling people from the playing fields and back indoors – the current emphasis has been on building an online presence, while keeping spirits high. A weekly #WatchRL viewing has been run via the club’s Twitter account. “We try to find a good game to watch and chat about,” explained Ward. “Hopefully it has helped people stay connected.”
And while setting up a club away from the traditional heartlands of the sport is not an easy task – the aim is to double down, ensuring that it’s able to succeed.
“A lot of people think of expansion in terms of the professional game, but my belief is that the growth has to happen at the grassroots level,” said Ward, who is approaching things with a ‘whole game’ philosophy in mind. “Too often there’s a split between the professional and the community game – both elements need to be growing, because they reinforce one another.”
While geographically far from the game’s heartlands, Ward is hoping to infuse a sustainable approach to building the club, with the identity of the city – with the famous Brighton Royal Pavilion currently adorning the emblem. “We want to be a club that’s proud of our city and embodies its values,” said Ward. “Things like inclusiveness and not being afraid to do things in a different way.”
The disbanded Sussex Merlins flew the league flag once before in the city, and Ward wants to bring back the enthusiasm and culture that was once developed – to returning players and fans, as well as new converts.
“I want to take the best parts of what we had with the Merlins – a great atmosphere and some brilliant people,” said Ward. “It won’t replace what was there before, but I believe we can create a new home for the sport in Brighton and the wider Sussex county, and hopefully create more amazing rugby league experiences!”