Many things have divided the North and South of England over the years, but not many have done so quite as distinctively as the schism between Rugby Union and Rugby League, with the respective codes very much taking residence in just one half of the country.
Ever since the split in 1895 over the issue of payments to the working-class players in the North the divide between rugby in the North and South has been distinct; only 2 of the teams in the top tier of League come from outside the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria and these sides have tended to languish at the bottom of the table.
The creation of a Rugby League club in Oxford is part of an RFL initiative designed to spread the demographic of Rugby League and ORL are one of three new clubs to have been created in Championship One, the third tier of the sport and OURFC Blue and now ORL winger Sean Morris is positive about the start that the club has made:
“By all accounts we are holding it together, considering it’s a completely fresh squad but we’re gelling quickly. I think it helps that we’ve got a very good set-up behind us and I think we will continue to progress.”
The side have won one and lost one, going down narrowly 22-20 to South Wales in the first game at Iffley. The match attracted 352 supporters, which although is not quite what one would expect for a full Blues game, is a figure that Morris describes as a “pretty strong effort for a first run-out.”
Indeed the scale of the task facing the club is illustrated by Morris’ stated aims for the season on the squad profiles page of the club website: “To learn how to play Rugby League.”
There have been many famous converts from League to Union, but making the switch the other way around is not so common. “The game on Saturday was only my fourth game so I still don’t really know what I’m doing and the others are shouting at me telling me what to do. I’d say the biggest difference is at the breakdown because there’s no ruck. It feels weird making a tackle and then that’s it, you just have to release. It’s made me realise how much I enjoyed that aspect of the game in Union.
“But because of that the game is a lot quicker and so fitness is crucial, especially with having retreat 10 every time. Tackling is different as well; they tend to run straighter and harder because it’s all about making yards until the final play, so you get bigger hits. In Union I was used to making a lot of tackles around the legs but League is not like that,” says Morris.
The Oxford Blue says that the first season is all about consolidating playing-wise but adds that a lot of work is being put in behind the scenes in terms of outreach with council schemes aiming to spread the game within the community, with particular focus on the future and a concentration on youth involvement.
With the possibility of London Welsh moving out of Oxford following their relegation from the Premiership, it may be that Oxford is turned into one of the pioneering League towns of the South in the not-so-distant future.
PHOTOS/Oxford Rugby League