Written by Keith Whitelock
Six senior teams, flights to almost all games and a layer of junior teams.
Part one of this two-part series on rugby league in Norway focused on the progress made at an international level. Part two will focus on the structure and progress of the domestic side of things.
Norway is a bigger country than most people realise. Of the nearly 200 recognised countries in the world, Norway is the 67th largest, larger than both New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Geography is both a blessing and a curse in Norway. The west coast, dominated by peninsula’s, is one of the wettest areas in Europe whilst the north coast contains a very small portion of the population due to its harsh climate.
If rugby league were to ever spread across the country, it would require either a conference system or teams to fly to games when they play each other. Up until now, Norway has had a northern and a southern conference. 2019 will be different though. A unified, national competition means teams travel up to 2,000km to play each other on a home and away basis. The only practical way to do this is by flying. Trondheim Rugby Klubb (central Norway), Stavanger Storm (south-west Norway), Oslo Capitals (Norway’s capital city), Lillestrøm Lions (a short distance north-east of Oslo, Porsgrunn Pirates (southern Norway) and Sandnes Raiders (south-west Norway) will all compete in the senior men’s competition this year.
“My priority is to help grow the game here in Norway, and if we can upset a few sides on the international stage it will hopefully we can get more exposure so we can eventually be recognised by the Norwegian governing body”, David Hunter, Head Coach of the national side told Everything Rugby League.
Recognition by national governments is a problem for rugby league all around the world. In countries like Australia or England, the thought that rugby league is not an official sport is unfathomable. Around the world is a different story though. The word “rugby” being in the name of the sport is both a good thing and a bad thing. To be blunt, it allows rugby league to somewhat piggyback off the progress rugby union has made in some countries. On the flipside, there are governments out there who don’t understand that rugby league isn’t simply another variant of rugby union, similar to how rugby sevens is administered by rugby union.
Recent recognition by the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) has helped quite a lot but there are still some countries who only recognise the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
In Norway, rugby league does not have official government recognition, making funding hard to come by. The sport has been put in a multi-sport federation called the Norwegian Rugby Federation (NRF) which administered a strange mix of sports. The NRF oversee the development of rugby union, rugby league, Aussie rules, Gaelic football and wheel chair rugby.
“We have problems with ex pats and players that don’t know anything different between codes of the game. In saying this, a lot of young Norwegians now just want to play the oval ball sport so with such a small season they want to play both codes”, says Rugby League Norge Chairman Lee Johnson.
Ironically, this lack of clarity between the codes is what brought Lee to rugby league in the first place. “I came from a rugby union background and when I moved to Norway, I got asked to come help a club. Only then is when I found out it was a rugby league club at the first training session, but I found it great after that and became the chairman of that club. Then I was voted in by all the clubs to become chairman of rugby league in Norway. I’m an ex Royal Marines Commando from the UK so I like to run everything in a military way, delegating jobs to others so we stay at the top of our game. It’s all about trusting in the committee and players and by showing them respect you get respect and the best out of people playing and working under you” says Lee.
Rugby League Norge is given a limited amount of funding by the NRF which Lee estimates pays for around half the costs associate with running a 6-team competition requiring regular flights between cities and towns. This means the group has to work hard to make up the shortfall through finding sponsors in a country that runs off skiing, football and handball. Most of the money comes from the players and their commitment to the game.
Excluding funding, the other main issue rugby league in Norway has to overcome is climate. “Some areas have snow on the ground for almost 6 months of the year which doesn’t make things easy”, says David.
These issues haven’t stopped the group from running one of the most stable domestic competitions in a developing rugby league nation. In addition to the senior men’s competition, three rugby league nines tournaments will be held across the country, enabling smaller clubs to gain invaluable experience. The clubs are spread across almost the entire country. Bardufoss RL (far north Norway), Bodø Barbarians (north Norway), Flekkefjord Tigers (south Norway) and Sparbu Lumberjacks (central Norway) will all be participating in these tournaments to be held in the north, south and west of Norway.
Four clubs, Stavanger, Lillestrøm, Sandnes and Flekkefjord are looking to introduce children’s teams to help ensure future sustainability around playing numbers and help kids fall in love with rugby league.
Not all marketing costs thousands of dollars. David first got involved in rugby league on a routine walk down the street. “I saw a poster advertising the Norwegian GF. I got in touch with Lillestrøm Lions and ended up playing for them, then playing for Norway. From here I was Assistant Coach, and am now Head Coach for the national team”.
Visibility for rugby league in Norway is something that needs to expand. It’s widely acknowledged that rugby league has an amazing product, it’s just a matter of getting it out there. “Rugby league has no TV coverage in Norway for the NRL or Super league so getting new players is hard. You just need to ask a kid who they look up to and it’s a football/ skier or handball player because of TV. With help to get the sport on TV and more media coverage I’m sure younger people would soon flock to the sport” says Lee.
No doubt rugby league faces many challenges, some unique to Norway, some common across all developing rugby league nations. The success and progress the sport has made thanks in large part to people such as Lee and David is both refreshing and impressive. There’s a sense of pragmatic optimism about the future of rugby league in Norway. The work ahead is vast but it’s important to take a short pause and recognize the work of everyone involved in the growth of the sport in Norway.
Part one of Amazing things happening in Norway: http://everythingrugbyleague.com/amazing-things-happening-in-norway.html
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