The Rugby League Rebuild

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Everyone in Durham is familiar with the success of the university’s rugby union club, who currently lie second in BUCS Super Rugby. However, a proud tradition of rugby league resides in the university, which has been revived from a perilous position. I went down to one of their Tuesday training sessions to unearth the truth behind one of Durham’s forgotten clubs.

Despite the rain and freezing conditions, there were plenty of numbers down on 3G2, rampaging around the pitch in a warm-up match. The club’s captain, Rhys Swallow, was very generous and took time out to speak to me. He explained the club’s recent history.

‘We actually had a successful club until three or four years ago. Then COVID hit and the club folded. So, the club was restarted last academic year, and we have entered the leagues at the bottom, in division 2B.’

“The club was restarted last academic year, and we have entered the leagues at the bottom, in division 2B”

Rhys Swallow

Whilst it will be no walk in the park, Swallow thinks the club should be targeting promotion this season. Northumbria and Newcastle currently sit first and third respectively in the top division, two divisions above Durham. Hopefully in the future Durham can match their north east rivals. Durham do have a Conference Cup quarterfinal against Bangor to look forward to, which they are approaching optimistically.

Despite the north east’s university dominance, professional rugby league is well known for its popularity in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cumberland. The ‘M62’ corridor, as it’s known, contains ten of the twelve teams that comprise the country’s premier rugby league competition, which this season is Super League XXIX. Teams are known by their franchise-like names, such as Wigan Warriors or Leigh Leopards, with the naming of the league reflecting the American-like marketing model.

 The defection of rugby league players to union has made national headlines, such as when Sam Burgess joined Bath from South Sydney in 2014. However, Swallow has had no such trouble at Durham’s club.

‘We have a range of players. Some have come from union. We haven’t had any players leave to go to union from league. Some people had never played league before this year.’

Veteran coach Mike Thompson echoes the praise for the club’s new members.

‘There are some really talented players here. Some of the lads have been to North trials, even though it’s only their first season playing rugby league.’

“After my retirement from the police, I joined Newcastle Thunder as coach”

Mike Thompson

Not only have players been to trials, but two were selected. Swallow himself comprises half of the Durham contingent set to play in the North vs South university game next month. President Gabe Parker is the other.

Thompson takes great pride in the achievements within his squad. A wealth of experience in the game means he is clearly just as eager to get his hands dirty as when he first began coaching. Running to keep up with the play, he offered advice at each breakdown and chuckled with delight at every interception and sidestep. Eventually, he found time to prise himself away from the action and give an insight into this route to a cold Tuesday night under the Maiden Castle lights.

‘I have coached both codes. I was the rugby league coach here thirty years ago and the team were very successful. We were competing in the Premier Division and were part of the Super Ten with big rugby league universities like Manchester Metropolitan, Leeds, and Newcastle. After my retirement from the police, I joined Newcastle Thunder as coach. When I realised Durham were without rugby league team, I convinced the university to allow us a stall at freshers’ fair and helped them in that development season.’

It could be said that Thompson’s dedication to the club has resulted in the resurgence of rugby league in Durham. The sparkle in his eye as he talks about his team tells me he hasn’t regretted his decision to return to Durham for a single moment.

Image: Mike Thompson

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