Recently appointed Rugby League Ireland chair Jim Reynolds has outlined where he sees the future for the sport in the country, for a long time believed to be a rich reservoir of talent.
Current young men’s international Ronan Michael was plucked from the domestic leagues by Super League side Huddersfield Giants, and had a spell on secondment with Canberra Raiders in the NRL, as an example.
Reynolds, who became a fan of the sport watching it on TV with his dad says of those early experiences: “I just found it more exciting to watch than what was usually on. My career in business has seen me in many senior roles around the world but no matter where I was living, league was usually available to watch, especially during my time in Australia.”
“We returned to Ireland about five years ago with our three sons. The eldest took to RL in a big way here in Galway with the Tribesmen and in 2019 got four Ireland U19 caps and played in all the senior Domestic Clubs XIII fixtures that year – he absolutely loves the sport, so I got to know the coaches and many of the officers of Rugby League Ireland on the sidelines.”
Taking over at the end of last year and during the latest pandemic restrictions in the country, Reynolds is keenly aware that RLI has to learn to walk again before it can run, but has significant plans in the offing.
“First and foremost, we must be fully compliant with our Government’s new ‘Governance Code for Sport’ as administered by Sport Ireland – there is a lot of off-field work to be done to get us there and we will do it,” he notes.
“Apart from that, this is a World Cup year for us and also our U20’s are hopefully in the European Championship – it is our plan to exploit our participation in these tournaments to the maximum as regards publicity. In Ireland we have genuinely massive potential in growing our sport, attracting more talent and improving our standings – creating a buzz around our participation in these big tournaments will give us a great platform to build on.
“One of the first things we did as a board was to appoint a new marketing and communication group – it currently has six professionals in all aspects of marketing and social media and they are tasked with creating and executing strategies and plans to optimise our publicity.”
Reynolds continues: “Lastly, is the not too insignificant challenge of improving our fundraising and sponsorships – we have ambitious plans to become more inclusive and bring rugby league to more people regardless of their gender, age or physical abilities. Not surprisingly, these plans need funding and in the current economic climate this will be a big challenge, but I have faith that we will do it.”
Reynolds is also looking forward to getting the men’s domestic competition back up and running, whilst a first-ever women’s championship was announced yesterday, on International Women’s Day, and their wheelchair side is set to compete in the Celtic Cup in Edinburgh in mid-June.
“We actually have an increase in men’s clubs this year with several new ones indicating they would like to participate,” he notes. “We have a tentative match schedule done in case of a normal season start date and that plan then has fallback positions for later season start dates. We’re confident that even if we only get a very short season, we will do as before and get a reasonable competition run and have a 2021 champion as in 2020.”
Whilst that will, hopefully, lead into a successful men’s World Cup campaign – the Wolfhounds in a pool with New Zealand, Lebanon and newcomers Jamaica – the advent of women’s and elevation of wheelchair excites him equally.
“They are vital and absolutely core to us bringing rugby league to all of our communities and give all kids and adults the opportunity to participate in a wonderful sport,” Reynolds confirms.
In 2021 RLI will launch a four team women’s league together with a women’s representative team, with trials and selection completed before the end of the year. So far, there are women’s teams from Athboy RLFC, Barrowcudas RLFC (Carlow), Dublin City Exiles and the Galway Tribeswomen registered and more planned.
RLI director Sive Neary, says: “Having a women’s game represents a major step forward for the sport here and is the first move in our quest to be fully inclusive, with more developments in the pipeline. We want to be the sport that can offer every person in the country the opportunity to participate in a fun activity and all with pathways to international competition.”
And Ireland’s wheelchair side are on the hunt for players. “For us the Celtic Cup means hard matches against two strong nations,” advises head coach Damian McCabe. “We have some fine quality players signed up, but we could really use some more. If you are Irish or of Irish descent by way of a parent or grandparent, we can offer you the chance to take part.”
Reynolds adds: “The tournament is an important opportunity for Ireland to be present on the international wheelchair stage and will allow us to build towards future tournaments, such as the European Championships which has been identified for 2023.”