This weekend will see the start of an expanded 2021 Rugby League Ireland championship, with teams based in all four provinces.
Six sides will contest the men’s championship with a further seven spread across division two which will be split into east and west conferences, with the top two from each contesting the play offs. Five clubs will take the field in the inaugural women’s domestic league.
According to RLI chair, Jim Reynolds: “We have two men’s divisions for the first time, with the second primarily a development league for new clubs and division 1 sides keen to run a second team to help bring on their players. Sustainability is absolutely key in our expansion – clubs keep going because they have built an eco-system of player development and replacement. We are actively encouraging ours to introduce initiatives to help them get there along with adopting best practice on governance.”
“The enforced hiatus in sporting activity has actually seen interest in rugby league heightened because we run through the summer months and are one of the few sports going ahead,” Reynolds added. “We have been pretty active on social media and at club level trying to push awareness. It has been really encouraging to see some dormant clubs coming back, a few new ones, and our more established with ballooning numbers too. We are currently in the last stages of completing our first ever Ten Year Plan. One of our independent board members, Myra McGlynn, is driving the initiative and has been interviewing all our stakeholders including Sport Ireland, parents, volunteers, referees, coaches, junior and senior players, club managers and governing bodies – and I believe we will continue on a strong and sustainable trajectory of growth.”
An example of the heightened profile is, if Government guidelines allow for spectators, reigning All Ireland champions The Longhorns are planning on moving two of the biggest matches in the calendar to Morton Stadium in Dublin this summer, on July 3 against Galway Tribesmen in a repeat of the last Grand Final, and Malahide RLFC a week later. Both games will be broadcast live on their social media channels.
Reynolds is equally excited about the prospect of the formal launch of the women’s game. “Two other of our independent board members, Sive Neary and Nicola Lyons, have been really active in helping to get this off the ground, along with the clubs that put their hands up as soon as the possibility was mentioned,” he commented. “We judged that we needed to get a strong candidate in to be national women’s head coach and that they would be the lead of a programme to get us to the 2025 World Cup and inspire a domestic competition – a tall order to go from zero to participating in a RLWC in a little over one cycle. But we wanted to demonstrate that, for us, having a strong women’s game was a serious ambition and not just tick box window dressing.
“John Whalley, coach with Wigan Warriors Women’s Super League side has been appointed to lead our efforts. He is an ex-Ireland senior player, has really hit the ground running and with the very first All Ireland Women’s Championship kicking off in a matter of days, we are very excited for the prospects.”
RLI has also announced that they will be running an open trial session for U16s at Athboy RL Club on Sunday June 27 starting at 14:30, and have recently competed in the Wheelchair Celtic Cup, gaining a notable victory over hosts Scotland.
Reynolds commented; “Several months ago we set up ‘Junior RLI’ an initiative driven by a task force from several clubs around Ireland led by Peter Robson from our Belfast Eagles junior RL Club. It will see a minimum of two ‘Summer Blitzes’ – one in Belfast and one in Dublin for the younger ones and minis – with an U16’s Inter Provincial competition planned for the latter end of the season.”