Written by Callum Walker
The North East has endured a number of Rugby League failures in the past, but it appears as though Newcastle Thunder are well on their way to finally bringing some kind of stable entity to the sport.
From the merger with Hull at the turn of the century to the administration at the end of the noughties, it seemed as though the sport would never last long in the North East. But, the recreated Gateshead Thunder’s move to Newcastle in 2015 and the re-brand from Gateshead to Newcastle, has brought with it both permanence and growth.
Television cameras were live for Thunder’s superb victory over Dewsbury in the Challenge Cup fifth-round fixture with an appearance at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park scheduled for May as part of the Magic Weekend. Even more impressive, the North East has also been chosen to host five games of the 2021 RL World Cup.
For a Rugby League club – or indeed any sporting club – to be successful, the whole infrastructure from top to bottom has to be working towards a specific goal. Thunder have built from the bottom up with an academy that is able to compete with the best that Super League can offer and a reserves side that has started the 2020 season in a good run of form.
A long time – over a decade – has been spent on the foundations of the club and Thunder are quite obviously reaping the benefits now. And, with more media attention comes improved corporate and commercial contacts and networks.
What poses the biggest problem for expansion sides is the inclusion of homegrown players in their squads. Super League side Catalans have overseen the development of dozens of French stars, whilst struggling top-flight new boys Toronto’s lack of Canadian nationals has been a glaring error.
Newcastle, on the other hand, have a smattering of “Geordie” boys in their side. Sam Luckley, Rhys Clarke and Tyler Walton are three local lads that have come through the Newcastle system into the first-team and they certainly will not be the last. But, Thunder have that essential pathway from age-group Rugby League for youngsters all the way through to the first-team.
The proliferation of Thunder as a successful club with a bright future has seen an increase in kids choosing the sport, when in recent years that wouldn’t have been the case.
With interest though comes the need for somewhere to play, and, the surge of clubs all the way from community teams based in Catterick, North Yorkshire to those in Alnwick, Northumberland, from the west end of the “Toon” to Hexham has given these kids an outlet through which they can express themselves on the field.
It’s this grassroots expansion that wasn’t previously present that holds the key for Thunder’s future. And, it’s something that they have definitely got right. The Thunder’s foundation works closely with local schools whilst household names such as the likes of Lee Crooks and Andy Kelly have helped put Thunder on the map, inspiring local youngsters and providing the impetus so that Rugby League can gain a foothold in the North East.
The filling of a full reserve and academy side with local players is an incredible achievement, and, on the back of that, the crowds continue to flock to Kingston Park. The rebrand from Gateshead to Newcastle led to a 400% increase in attendances, and, it seems as though the only way is up for the club from the North East.