Rugby league has broken new ground by launching a professional club in Cornwall.
Cornwall RLFC have made a daring raid into one of rugby union’s strongholds in becoming the 11th team for Betfred League 1, the third tier of the professional game in the UK which is due to kick off in March.
The bold initiative, which has received the backing of the Rugby Football League, is the work of Canadian Eric Perez, the man who launched Toronto Wolfpack in 2017 and planned to follow it up with the introduction of a second club from Ontario, Ottawa Aces.
Perez bought former League 1 club Hemel and secured permission to move it to the Canadian capital with a view to entering League 1 in 2021 but was thwarted by the arrival of Covid-19.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, Perez has opted to start up the club in England and insists the move to Cornwall is part of a long-term strategy with the aim of becoming a major tourist attraction and eventually winning Super League.
“We’re permanently re-locating back to England,” Perez told the PA news agency. “Moving to Cornwall makes it a truly national sport.”
Perez announced his decision to pull the plug on Canada 11 days ago, claiming the ongoing pandemic had made it a “bridge too far”, but only now has revealed his destination, which will be the village of Penryn, situated a mile from Falmouth.
The club will share the Memorial Ground with Penryn RFC, the oldest rugby club in the country, ahead of a move to the proposed Stadium for Cornwall near Truro in 2024 and Perez, the chairman, intends to tap into the local market for players.
“I’ve been working on this for about four or five months now and, if you dig deep into it, Cornwall and the north of England are extremely similar places, with its culture and industrial history with its mines and fishing,” Perez said.
“The class system is not there, it’s a rugby league place waiting to happen and it’s the first true south-west expansion.
“There’s a massive untapped talent resource there because everybody in Cornwall picks up an oval ball.
“I have three goals – one is to walk out at Old Trafford for the Super League Grand Final, the second is to build up rugby league across Cornwall and the third is to have Cornish players playing for England.”
Cornwall are guaranteed acceptance because they hold Hemel’s old licence and they have received the blessing of RFL chair Simon Johnson.
“The RFL board have approved the club’s request to relocate as it takes the Betfred League 1 competition and the sport of rugby league into a new area, which shares many of the characteristics of the traditional heartlands in the north and has a renowned passion for rugby,” Johnson said.
“This is an exciting opportunity to take our great sport to a completely new audience and for our clubs and supporters to embrace that.”
Perez, who handed control of Toronto to Australian businessman David Argyle before the club reached Super League and fell into financial trouble during the pandemic, is confident his venture will succeed where a host of other expansions have failed.
“This isn’t going to be like the other expansions have been in England,” he said.
“There are no professional summer sports in Cornwall, that makes us a tourist attraction and puts us in a unique position. The population triples in Cornwall in the summer, from 600,000 to 1.8million.
“This is an untapped gem. I spoke to pro clubs and cities the length and breadth of the country and no one area put together the kind of package that Cornwall can.
“People say why don’t you go to Birmingham or other big cities but the truth is rugby league would get lost in those places, whereas in Cornwall we can actually make an impact.”
Perez insists his project is fully financed, with the money that was going into Ottawa having been diverted to Cornwall, and he says the ownership group comprises of representatives from both Canada and the south west of England.
The squad will initially be part-time and Perez says an announcement about the coach will be made in the coming days. Former Catalans Dragons boss Laurent Frayssinous was due to take charge of Ottawa for 2021 and remains involved despite his appointment as France national coach.
Perez is confident he can win over the doubters when he presents his plan to a meeting of Championship and League 1 clubs on Wednesday.
“Because the Cumbrian teams got promoted and Newcastle are already in the second division, the furthest drive is six hours,” he said. “For most it will be around four hours.
“We can do something special here, this is a long-term project. You are not going to see us setting the world on fire like we did with Toronto in year one.
“We’re going to build this sustainably over time. We want to enrich the general tapestry of English rugby league. I personally would like to be in Super League within seven to 10 years.
“There is already a lot of grassroots activity which we will be supporting and the Cornish Rebels are going to be a feeder club.”