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Page last updated at 17:27 GMT, Wednesday, 28 July 2010 18:27 UK

Rugby League's North East missionary

By Matt Newsum

Robin Peers (bottom) tackled by two Workington players
Peers (tackled) is as keen a professional player as he is talent scout for the RFL

Every weekend Gateshead Thunder wing Robin Peers spends 80 minutes being grappled, roughed and tossed to the turf in rugby league's Championship One division.

However Peers, a long-time devotee of the sport, faces an almost equally demanding task in his role as a Rugby Football League talent coach in the North East.

Football, rugby union and cricket clubs in the shape of Newcastle United, Sunderland, Newcastle Falcons and Durham all vie for the attentions of the North East public, not to mention Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Darlington further south.

It is a situation with which the likeable Geordie is familiar.

"My office used to be at County Durham sport and I used to sit with four or five officers from other governing bodies of sport," Peers told BBC Sport.

"I'd say: 'I've got a lad playing rugby league for me', and then the bloke doing cricket would say: 'Yeah, he's playing cricket for my county team', the athletics guy would say: 'Yeah, he's throwing javelin for us next week in the County Championships' and so on.

"It is always tough to get the kids involved and wanting to stay in your sport because there aren't that many kids out there who are very talented.

Warrington players hold aloft the Challenge Cup
Challenge Cup finals on the BBC are important to the sport's profile

"You've just got to have the right product, get the kids to enjoy it and show them you've got good opportunities, and hopefully they'll progress in your sport to a good level."

Thanks to the work of Peers and his fellow talent scout Andy Kelly, as well as those throughout the United Kingdom, slowly but surely the sport of rugby league is growing across unfamiliar fields, away from the heartlands of Lancashire and Yorkshire, much as it continues to do in London and now Wales.

Encouragingly, 398 under 18s took part in North East rugby league last season across seven clubs, with the most popular age groups being under-13 and under-15. Peers is delighted by the progress made by the RFL in promoting the 13-man game.

"The sport of rugby league is developing all the time. Two years ago we decided that instead of playing in the winter in the cold and the wet, we were going to change it to a summer sport, like the professional game," Peers added.

"Since we've done that we've seen an increase in people taking part, both at adult and junior level, we've seen an increase in clubs, an increase in volunteers and referees, so it is progressing.

"We have the Durham Tigers who are based in Shildon, Peterlee Pumas and the Durham Demons.

"Aside from that, we have Sunderland rugby league club who had been around since the 1970s and are progressing well at the adult level.

"We're also seeing a bit of interest on Teesside now too, we've got a brand new club in Hartlepool who are starting to play under-15, so it's progressing along nicely."

Recent discussions surrounding the list of free-to-air protected sports events have tended to focus mainly on the potential addition of Ashes cricket, that famous contest between England and Australia, while the proposed dropping of rugby league's Challenge Cup from the roster has taken a back-seat.

It is a move Peers believes could be detrimental, given the pull that seeing the sport on television can have - particularly given the success of the rival code of rugby union.

He had a fantastic impact of the kids and we saw a boom in rugby league, when England rugby union won the World Cup, kids just wanted to play rugby so our clubs picked up new players as well

Robin Peers on the 'Jonny Wilkinson effect'

"It's tough for rugby league to develop outside the traditional heartland regions, its profile in the media isn't as big as with other sports," Peers continued.

"Having the Challenge Cup on the BBC helps a lot, people are able to see rugby league for free.

"Hopefully they're having a look at it and thinking: 'I wouldn't mind having a go at that myself'".

"I saw a statistic that 20 million people a year watch rugby league on TV, and 10 million of that figure is when they see it on the BBC, obviously they see it on Sky Sports as well with Super League and internationals.

"Through that they see how fantastic the players are, the skill levels and the fitness levels, and it's important to have role models.

"For example when the Rugby World Cup was on TV in 2003, every school we went into the kids wanted to be Jonny Wilkinson.

"He had a fantastic impact of the kids and it also meant we saw a boom in rugby league, because kids just wanted to play rugby, so our clubs picked up new players as well.

"From what I saw the kids just wanted to play rugby, they went down to their local club and if their club happened to be rugby league, then so be it.

"Rugby league and rugby union are very similar, so there's no reason why people can't watch or play either."

Peers is passionate about rugby league, a game he grew to love despite the wealth of activities available as a youngster.

"I started playing a bit of rugby in middle school when I was 10, we had a development officer called Mick Hogan who was a good starting point,"

"At the same time my local club Newcastle Eagles, who became the Wallsend Eagles, moved to a sports ground that was directly across from my house, so I could roll out of bed and I was pretty much on the rugby field.

"I began properly playing when I was 12 years old. I was a footballer before that but I just enjoyed rugby league, I'd seen it on TV, saw it, liked it and just started playing.

"Plus I found I was good at it, and that always helps when you're good at something."



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