Written by Stuart McLennan
The seaside resort of Brighton is renowned for its arts and culture scene. Musicians Nick Cave and Fatboy Slim are locals, and for ten years actress Cate Blanchett and family called the city home. When it comes to sport, Premier League football club Brighton and Hove Albion rules the roost.
Approximately 270 miles from the northern England heartlands, Brighton is not the first place you think of for rugby league although the Sussex Merlins, founded by Nick Weston, kept the flame flickering for a number of years before unfortunately folding a few years ago.
Brighton Hove RL founder Phil Ward, who also has a rugby union playing and coaching background, first embraced rugby league when he was at university for a reason you might not expect.
“I first started playing rugby league at Warwick University in 2005 and played there for three years – I found that the League team was a lot less intense when it came to the drinking side of things than Union – which I’d played all my life until then – so it suited me a lot better” Ward told Everything Rugby League.
Ward played a number of seasons with the Sussex Merlins before returning to rugby union. However it was not to be the end of his association with the greatest game of all.
“I was starting to miss rugby league and with the World Cup coming up, it felt like a good time to get started (setting up the Brighton and Hove Rugby League Club).”
“I think the great thing about Brighton, and one of the things that I love about living here, is that there’s always so much going on. There’s such a diverse range of people living here – even rugby league fans!
“It’s obviously not a traditional rugby league stronghold, but I think there’s room anywhere for a great community of like-minded people.”
Ward and his colleagues are taking a business like approach to the setup and long term future of the club with sustainable plans involving both the men’s and women’s game.
“We’ve been using the word ‘sustainable’ a lot and we’ll keep using it. In 2014 I was playing in a league of six teams and only one of them is still around. Because we’re so far away from the heartlands, there isn’t that culture of rugby league here – there’s not a queue of people waiting to join like there is for some of the more established sports. That means we have to proceed carefully and build really strong foundations so that the club can survive and eventually thrive.
“We’ve got an initial plan that we’re expecting to take 3-5 years. I’m really proud of how boring it is! It’s literally just about getting men’s and women’s teams off the ground and in a good place, building the volunteer base and building our membership..
“In the longer term, I would love to see the club play in the Challenge Cup – both men and women. 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 in the Challenge Cup so it would be history making as well.
“We want to make sure we’re an inclusive club and that means providing opportunities for both men and women to play. We’re running social X-League which allows us to run mixed-gender and will be looking to put together a full team as soon as we possibly can.
“It’s been really positive so far – we reached our initial targets for January in the first four days. Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t done anything special yet – it just means there was a higher latent demand for rugby league locally than I thought there was.”.
The Brighton and Hove founder is aware of the great challenges in starting up a rugby league club in the south of England with a global pandemic thrown in but is taking heart from what’s been achieved and the upcoming 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
“The pandemic is a struggle for a lot of different reasons, although in terms of starting the club, it’s been useful for me – it’s given me time to plan and get some of the behind the scenes work done.
“Over the past couple of weeks we’ve run a Friday night #WatchRL on Twitter where we find a good game to watch and chat about while we’re all on lockdown. Hopefully it has helped people stay connected to their sport in a time where that’s been difficult.
“If people had said a few years ago that Jamaica, Greece and Brazil would be competing at the next RLWC, people would have said that you’re mad and yet here we are. I think it’s a testament to the appeal of the sport.”
If you’re based in or nearby Sussex and want to get involved, either as a player, volunteer or just a supporter, please get in touch. The website is www.BrightonHoveRL.com and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @BrightonHoveRL. They also love to talk to anyone interested in growing the Women’s game in the South East – especially other clubs who are thinking about starting their own team.