Photo by Bedford Tigers
Bedford is a historic market and the county town of Bedfordshire, Northwest of London in England.
“We had four people around a table, trying to decide whether to carry on or not.” Rob Ashton recalls from meeting in 2009 when he took charge of the Bedford Tigers, a club very much at the crossroads at the time.
In the years that followed the club not only survived, but It also thrived in a town north of London where Rugby League is ‘the other rugby code’ that the locals traditionally never paid much attention to.
“Fast forward ten years and we have two senior squads, an occasional Legends team, a touch footy side. We founded and run our own junior competition by creating four new clubs around the county. We have two juniors’ groups at each of these clubs, and are expanding to six satellite clubs in 2021.”
Rob does not take all of the credit though, “Graham Brown has been here since 2009 as well. His efforts as Chairman have been instrumental in our planning and development.”
“We’re super proud of what we’ve achieved as a club and we’re starting to focus on turning it into more of a brand. The Toronto Wolfpack brand building has been such a motivation!”
When most think about expansion for the Super League and RFL, the South of France, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and possibly even Belgrade or Valencia are the locations which might normally spring to mind. The non-heartland areas around the UK itself are often overlooked.
The Tigers may take inspiration from the big expansion clubs, but surely vice versa the Wolfpacks, Ottawa Aces and New York Rugby Leagues of the world could be looking to Bedford’s foundations for development inspiration.
“At the end of the junior season, we pick a representative group and give them a bit more of a focused training environment. We then have a game against our local rivals Hemel Stags,” Ashton explains
“This year we had set up our first-ever academy and were set to complete the five-year plan and have a full player pathway from juniors, through our academy into senior grades.”
“We have also run schools’ programmes and before COVID 19 hit we were days away from launching our wheelchair team.”
“We’ve qualified up numerous coaches and generated our own match official pool so we are completely self-sufficient. It seems common sense but you’ve got to remember that rugby league didn’t exist here fifteen years ago.”
This ‘common sense’ strategy could easily be replicated anywhere around the world. The foundations for strong development and new player pools can exist with a little hard work, dedication and planning.
Rob was recognised for his efforts with an RFL community award for Services to Rugby League in 2017 which was presented to him at the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford.
“For me, the catalyst was when I was running the seniors and I had so many players telling me how much they loved it and wished it was around as an option when they were kids… so I just did it!”
The off-field success has seen growth on the field for the Bedford Tigers in recent years with the senior side who take part in the Southern Conference playing in their first Challenge Cup in January 2020.
“It’s been a long journey, but we’re here now at a stage where we’re attracting good rugby league people who live locally. My energy can now be more focused.”
One area of focus may be on how the Tigers can bolster their own squad next seen and also help grow Rugby League across Europe at the same time.
“We’re hoping to explore a relationship with clubs and players in Serbia. We have sent some kit over for their domestic season and are looking to get some players over here next year to give them some decent playing experience.”
“The next aim is to gain our own ground and enter league 1. That’s the goal.”
A big audacious plan, but certainly one which should be a part of a much larger strategy for expansion and development for the code by decision-makers at the RFL and Super League.