The full interview between Jamie Jones Buchanan of Leeds Rhinos and England and All Golds Club President and Board member, Lionel Hurst, in this month’s Rugby League World magazine. www.totalrl.com 

It was at an award’s night in Gloucester in November when I was reacquainted with one of the smartest and most contagiously enthusiastic men to be involved in Rugby League, Lionel Hurst.

For those of you that don’t know Lionel, he is undoubtedly one of the sport’s great expansionists, and the president of Championship One club the University of Gloucestershire All Golds.

He is certainly of true Rugby League pedigree, but it is the richness of his historic mind of which I am almost envious. I am like a child when it comes to the greed for knowledge, and on rare occasions, I cross paths with those who illuminate the fact that I know very little about the game that I have spent nearly all my memorable life living in. I find it fascinating.

On a vehicle of historical metaphor, Lionel has planted a garden of Rugby League seeds in more areas of the UK than anyone I have met so far, and it’s easy to see how his thespian persona encapsulates many who may ordinarily overlook the sport.  From the Admirals of Greenwich to the Ironsides of York Nines, Lionel has covered the length and breadth of the country, leaving an opportunity for legacy in every corner.

I went back to Cheltenham initially to evaluate the growth of our game in Gloucester and to interview Jordan James, who late last year had accepted a playing and coaching role at the All Golds but has recently had a change of plans following a fast tracked coaching path given to him by Wigan.

Even if a little selfish of me, the change of plan was an opportunity to hear more from Lionel himself and some of the inspiring experiences he has had on his journey from Warrington to Cheltenham over the course of five decades.

This is how his Rugby League story began.

“My father was Warrington’s club doctor in the ‘50s when Bevan, Bath and all those great players were there,” he remembered. “As a little boy my first memory was as Warrington were starting to fade in the later stages of the ‘50s, after that great replay at Odsal with 102,000 people in 1954.

“There are pictures that show supporters on the roof, but I know other family friends still alive who never got into Yorkshire for that game. They left Warrington in coaches and so many people went to the game that the traffic was stopped on the Pennines. They had to listen to it on the radio; they never even got into Bradford.

“Rugby League’s zenith was that year in 1954 because it was also the year of rugby’s first ever World Cup. England-France drew 32,000 people in Paris in the final – what have we done? We have thrown this legacy away.”

 

In the soul

 

“My first real memory was as a young boy in 1959. The county cups in Lancashire and Yorkshire were a big deal then. The Lancashire final in 1959 was Warrington versus Saint Helens at Wigan’s Central Park on a Saturday afternoon. It was up against Manchester United-Liverpool on the same day and do you know what the attendance was – 39,500.

“Warrington won 5-4 with a great try – if there had been a video ref then I don’t think would have been allowed – and this game had some of the great names like Brian Bevan, and Tom Van Vollenhoven on the wing for St Helens. I have the programme still all signed by the Warrington team. I showed it to Shaun Edwards one day because his dad Jackie Edwards was a belting player and played in the match.  After the game, I was only a little lad then but I remember standing next to Ally Naughton who died last year – the great Warrington captain. The Lancashire Cup was bigger than me but what a first memory. This is why it goes deep to the soul and made such a lasting impression.

“I went to a Rugby League primary school in Warrington and I was down for the trials for the following year which I thought was brilliant. But to be honest with you I was always in trouble as a child, constantly misbehaving. My father, who was a doctor, was told by friends of the family that he should send me to public school and it would sort me out. So as a little boy of eight I was sent to one of the old Victorian style public schools, Ellesmere College in Shropshire.

“I loved it and stayed there for about ten years and played in all the rugby union teams, including the First XV with former British Lion and England player Bill Beaumont, who was one of my best friends as he was a border at the school too. It was harsh – no heating or hot water in the long dormitories. No carpets. Short and regular hair cuts, punishment drills and the like.

“When I left Ellesmere I went to Sheffield University and captained the Rugby League team. The wonderful man and famous referee Fred Lindop was our coach and mentor. We were very successful and often fielded three sides. To toughen us up Fred entered us into the Wakefield/Castleford/Featherstone Sunday League. What a shock that was. Our two centres were from Eton and Harrow so you can imagine it was quite a culture change, but they loved it.

“I remember being in the dressing room one day and we heard a tremendous roar and then metal gates opening and seeing all this tough looking hombres appear covered in black dust with lamps on. It was the opposition finishing their shift and then changing straight in to their rugby kit to play us. Talk about Swiss finishing school!”

 

Gloucestershire promise

 

The conversation quickly moves onto Rugby League in Gloucestershire. “The first reincarnation of Rugby League here – after the great match of February 15th 1908 between England and the New Zealand All Golds – was in 1985. As luck would have it, a good friend of mine had moved to Cheltenham too. We met up one lunchtime and he said ‘I’m missing Rugby League’, I said yes, why don’t we see if there are a load of exiled Northerners and get a coach trip up now and again to watch a game. We decided that was a bit pathetic and we knew there had never been a team in Gloucestershire so we went to see the Gloucestershire Echo to announce our plans and I still have the picture from the paper.

“Don’t forget the animosity toward the game of Rugby League back then. If you were 18 and over and you had played League, you were banned from union.  Despite all that, I spoke to Harry Edgar at Open Rugby (the predecessor to Rugby League World) and asked for a list of subscribers he had for this region. He gave me a list and I got in touch with them individually and in quick time we had teams in Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bristol, Bath, Plymouth and Redditch. Ray French came and opened the clubhouse of the team in Bath.”

Lionel has argued that his current hometown Cheltenham is the birthplace of international Rugby League given that the Northern Union beat the New Zealand All Golds 8-5 in a deciding test match at the Athletic Ground in Cheltenham back in 1908.

My argument is that the first of three test matches between the two teams was in my home city of Leeds at Headingley, where the Northern Union won 14-6 before the All Golds won at Stamford Bridge 18-6. My claim is galvanised by the fact that their first tour match the year before was against Bramley, the small town in Leeds were I actually grew up. Winner, winner, chicken dinner I think!

Lionel counters by saying the first two tests were the gestation period. It was only when the All Golds won the decider in Cheltenham that the international game was actually born as that is when matters came to fruition – when the series was won and thus the birth had taken place.

What we can both agree on is that Cheltenham and the County of Gloucester does indeed have a rich Rugby League heritage, and no shortage of people who want to see that rekindled. Over the years he has put a structure in place matched only by the symmetry of the Georgian structures monopolising the landscape of the picturesque area, and has seen both the university team and the appetite of local schools go from strength to strength.

“The schools and colleges are the key for long term sustainability and school interest Cheltenham has in abundance – the problem sits at the shortage of coaches to serve those schools.

“There has been Rugby League at the University of Gloucester in different reincarnations for some 15 years, but it has only been a university for five or six years – previously it was Cheltenham and Gloucester College.

“Where I particularly got involved was six years ago I was aware of the university and that they had a Rugby League team and I think one Wednesday afternoon I turned up to watch them at a minor rugby union club in Gloucester. It was a very low grade division, the kit wasn’t matching, the pitch wasn’t marked – it was amateurism personified.

“There were a couple of lads running the team, in particular Rob Webber who’s the current CEO. He’s an excellent young man – I met him and a fellow called Ken Stone, I thought there’s something about these two. I cant remember all the chronology but I told them I was a lawyer and wasn’t involved in the university so if they thought I was interfering then no dramas, but if they would like me on board then I’m happy to be.

“They asked what I had in mind and I said we need to be playing at a higher level.  There is a franchised premier division called the Super 8s that Leeds Met University always win.”

 

Birth of the All Golds

 

Lionel quickly started to put his vision into action, securing a Wednesday night slot at Cheltenham RU’s Prince of Wales Stadium and involving the RFL in the process. When the University RU team was banned for some serious misconduct in town, several players joined the League side and they came fourth in their first season in the Super 8s.

The year after was tougher – several players had graduated and they drew just one game, losing all of the others including an 82-10 thumping against Leeds Met.

“They appeared twice on Sky TV, the games were live and I was lying there poorly on the sofa and I thought ‘What’s going on there?’ Their kit wasn’t matching and the week after they had on a rugby union kit that they borrowed. I was livid; I thought it was disgraceful.

“I told them what I would do is give them £10,000 if they could match it in some fashion, and we could bring in six to eight boys from the north on scholarships. That was two years ago. We went from losing every game to finishing third in 2012 then last year we won it. Leeds Met came here and we beat them 18-16 at the Prince of Wales Stadium. In the return fixture we played them at the Leeds Rhinos training ground on the 3G pitch and drew 6-6, then the last match of the season to take the title we beat Loughborough.

“Within two years, with some wise investing and the backing of quality personnel at the university, we put a package together and that’s when I introduced the branding of the All Golds in honour of those great men. We wrote to the New Zealand Rugby League and asked their permission to change the fern’s colour from silver to gold.  So they have been known as the All Golds only three years, but then of course you have to consider how you sustain this.

“In January 2014 when the schools went back, out of 45 primary schools in Cheltenham and North Tewksbury, 36 wanted Rugby League. That’s without talking about the Forest of Dean, Gloucester or Bristol. So far we have 80 schools – now we need to produce players so that when he comes to the under-16s I don’t need to tell him how to play the ball. We need to produce children who are Rugby League children and that is beginning to happen.

“This isn’t rocket science, I’m no great gardener but I know that if you want a sustainable garden of shrubs and flowers you had better plant bulbs and seeds and let the damn things grow.”

 

Northern ignorance

I must admit there was a fair bit of ignorance on my part in terms of Rugby League outside of the M62. I guess I bought into this myth that the game is non-existent once you leave South Yorkshire but that just isn’t true and we have the likes of Darrell Griffin and Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook to prove it.

Speaking to Iestyn Harris a few months ago, he made it clear how important it was to send the harvester out into regions that we would never associate with Rugby League, particularly the areas where rugby union is at its best. Ben Flower and Gil Dudson have been the fruits of the Wigan reapers, and Lionel is adamant that there’s more for the picking in Gloucester if anyone has the insight to delve into the crop.

He has shown me the history to back that claim up and told me about times of old and men of renown, who had their origins in South West England and the opposite code. He also believes that if we are to bring that history into the future in needs to come through the vehicle of dual registration and partnerships with already established clubs.

“What we are doing hasn’t been done for the over a century,” he said. “If you look through Rugby League history all the great teams up north have been laced with Welsh and union players. In this great team I keep banging on about in 1908, of the Northern Union side the man of the match was Billy Holder from Hull – he was a Gloucester man who had gone north to play for Hull from Gloucester RU.

“When I first came down here in the 1980s and went to Gloucester It was like walking into St Helens, Featherstone or Wigan – this is a tough joint. You go and watch some of the local union derbies here and it’s like watching East Hull versus West Hull. It’s no laughing matter. If they were 90 miles north everyone would be playing League. People ask why we do it here when its all union and I say ‘ Hello – this is rugby country’.”

 

Dual vision

 

So how can dual registration – criticised in many quarters – help the growth of the sport in areas like Gloucester?

“When I was the chairman of the Summer Conference in the mid ‘90s I remember floating it past Gary Hetherington at a game in Chester. It’s not right and proper of you to allow big full-time clubs to be twinned with other clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire. First of all you are undermining these great names – for me I am pleased that Leigh have gone on their own from Wigan, because they’re a famous club within themselves.

“Batley and Dewsbury are famous clubs in their own right. What should happen is what we proposed in the mid-1990s, and let the big clubs twin with other parts of England. The only ones who should benefit from dual registration are clubs like the All Golds, Hemel, South Wales and Oxford because they’re new to the game. They’re not going to be good enough to go to Hunslet, York, Featherstone and Dewsbury because they’re different games and its going to take years of production.  How do you get us there? You have to give us a clutch of top men to mix in with our local boys and develop them.

“Call it what you like, twinning, dual registration – top clubs up north should only link with different regions in England. That’s the only way to spread the game and get the standard up in the regions. To loan them to championship clubs 10-20 miles around the corner who are famous clubs in their own right is ridiculous and it’s undermining the game.”

As a Rugby League fan I have always like the idea of Nines – the attacking nature of the game draws out skills and tactics that the 13-a-side game dare not employ for fear of upsetting their completion rates. Chips over the top, expansive plays, flashy offloads, long passes and dancing feet bring about the sweet, dessert part of the Rugby League meal to run nicely alongside the 13-man main course.  Like most forwards though, dessert is something I leave to the boys with skinny legs quick metabolisms.

The real beauty of Nines, like the union sevens, is that it’s more inclusive to those who might not be text book Rugby League players, and narrows the gap between the pro’s and the amateurs. Nines rugby is not just a quality game in its own right but acts as a fantastic trailer or appetiser to the game in its entirety. It is in itself a marketing tool, one that again through local history, Lionel has used to take the game round the country. It can bring communities together and send disciples back to their native lands.

Lionel has played a significant role in Rugby League Nines down the years, along with Premier Sports’ executive producer Neal Coupland, and the pair were the key figures in the launch of the York Nines in 2002. They linked the Nines with major historical events in the city, and it grew to the extent that Heworth ARLC were making enough money over the bar on the day to pay for all their National Conference winter travel. Their concept would grow further, before hitting problems.

 

Red Hall heartbreak

 

“Neal and I left York, set up the Floodlit Nines and it was a struggle but it started to go well. In the first year it was won by Huddersfield – we put up £10,000 of our own money as the prize pot for playing 45 minutes of rugby. The year after Hull brought a full side and won it. We were on the way.

“Figures in the game intervened and took the event away from us. We sat in this big room at Red Hall and they said were not happy with this, because we had the nines on a Wednesday before Wembley. They said there was a conflict of brands, a conflict of interest. The individual who advanced such arguments has now left the RFL but what damage has been done.

“I said they must be joking, that was the only time they can play the Nines to get the best players, because it meant that if say Huddersfield weren’t at Wembley, they could play on Wednesday, have that weekend off and not be in Super League till the following week.

“They said didn’t want it, and it became an under-20s competition for one year. We – the All Golds – entered it and beat Widnes and Salford, but spectators won’t come to watch it.  Last year gone there was no Nines anywhere, they just killed it.

“So all this excitement and interest that we built up had gone. Remember when we started it at York, that inspired the French to go home and form the Lezignan Nines, the Dutch started the Holland Nines, Hector McNeill (Skolars chairman) started the London Nines. We had real momentum, then the Rugby Football League arranged fixtures so that these teams were not free to play Nines.

“The destruction of the Nines is nothing short of heartbreaking. I offered last year a £100,000 investment to the top clubs – I use the word investment; I’m not wasting money. That money could have been used to invite the top eight Super League clubs if the agreement was to give the full £100,000 to the winners – for playing three games of 15 minutes.

“That money could have gone to the players. I am still offering that. What the game has got to do, if you want to play this game world wide, is use Nines like union has done with the sevens – it’s played everywhere.

“I am telling you within two or three years, Rugby League embracing Nines will be played everywhere. If I tried to get 13 lads out of Kenya to play Leeds Rhinos you would put a century on them, but if I found 9 top athletes from Kenya to play Leeds at Nines, the Rhinos would still beat them but I bet Kenya would score a try or two, and would go homes saying this game is great. Now if it goes well in Auckland in February, maybe the game will say Lionel and Neal did have a point.”

 

Comparison with the Doctor

 

As an extrovert, Lionel does remind me of one Dr Marwan Koukash, with his bold ideas like oxygen to a dying fire, sparking up interest. Where Marwan’s strength lies in his fresh perspective; Lionel, like an exiled patriarch, wraps the game in a local heritage to an extent where those who wouldn’t normally look twice at our game are jumping allover it.

Like Marwan, Lionel is known for dreaming big and I can only suspect that somewhere down the line he would like to see his All Golds up there with the best of them. I can only presume then that the return of promotion and relegation would be music to his ears.

“The fiasco over licensing? Come on. There must be promotion and relegation. I think there has to be criteria but that’s where you have to help clubs. Do you give more money to the Championship so they can get more infrastructure, staff and readiness for promotion? Look I’m the president of a professional club myself, the All Golds – what’s our dream? Of course were not at that level yet but there has to be a dream that one day we will play Leeds, Catalan and Wigan otherwise why are we doing this?

“What is another breath of fresh air, and I am sure the man will deliver with the way he has spoken and promised, is the Doctor at Salford. He had the guts to bring back the name the Red Devils, ‘Les Diables Rouges’. That originated in France when Salford went on a tour there in the 1930s – so stunning were they that the French named them ‘Les Diables Rouges’.That’s where the name comes from.

“I like my football and God bless Manchester United, who have a soft spot for our sport, but sorry lads the Red Devils are Salford Rugby League and the Doctor has the courage to claim it back. Wouldn’t we like to see the great Salford like they were in the days of Brian Snape in the late ‘60s and ‘70s?  You couldn’t get into the Willows then. I went one night with my dad and there were that many people at the game my dad said to me ‘Lionel, put your elbows down by your sides to protect your rib cage so you don’t get crushed’. This was at Salford.

“The game needs Marwan and his Salford to do well, I’m telling you.  It’s so important to break the rule of a few clubs; we need constant change and excitement. The fans want that and if it works at Salford and the crowds rise to 8-10,000 and they come in the top six, than other wealthy men might say, ‘Just a moment, here is a route into top sport, comparatively cheaply as compared to other sports’.

“That’s purely what the game lacks – people of vision, passion, enterprise, experience and money.  If you put that together you’re in business.

“Rugby League to me is like a shy beautiful woman – she’s beautiful but every time she goes out in public, she doesn’t wash her hair, she wears national health spectacles, no makeup with a long brown dress. She won’t show her beauty to the world and that’s our game. Our game is unparalleled in beauty but it needs to present itself in a way that shows that beauty.”

 

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