Scotland has potential for rugby league – Edinburgh Eagles’ Andrew McPhail

Scotland has potential for rugby league – Edinburgh Eagles’ Andrew McPhail

Six years ago, team manager Andrew McPhail called a training night with a view to effectively resurrecting the Edinburgh Eagles rugby league team only to find the sum total of five unimpressed players and a bag of deflated balls at his disposal.

At that point McPhail may have been forgiven for writing off his ambitions for the club, based at the 12th century Royal High School which boasts comedian Ronnie Corbett among its luminaries, as just another silly joke.

But as his revitalised club prepare to return to the first round of the Betfred Challenge Cup on Saturday with a home tie against Saddleworth Rangers, McPhail can reflect on a triumph of perseverance and plenty of optimism for the future.

“I know there is potential for rugby league in Scotland if the right people are involved,” said McPhail, who first became involved with the club in 2017 when players were sparse and official matches even sparser.

“It is difficult to break through because a lot of people in Scotland don’t particularly appreciate that there are two codes – of course if you mention rugby they associate it with the Six Nations and the storied clubs in the Borders.

“But it means there is a rugby infrastructure in Scotland so young children are able to pick up the skills, and ultimately that skill-set is not dissimilar in either code, so there is definitely potential.”

The Eagles made their first Challenge Cup appearance in 1999 and returned to the competition after a seven-year absence in 2022, when they lost to Normanton Knights.

The club’s change in fortunes coincided with a decision to leave an inconsistent Scottish domestic set-up and join the more established North East League in 2019, completing a successful first season by winning the Grand Final with a golden point victory over Jarrow Vikings.

The Eagles even boasted representation in last year’s Rugby League World Cup, with captain and utility man Lewis Clarke named as part of Scotland’s 21-man training squad for the competition.

It marked an impressive ascent for Clarke, who had been one of the five disillusioned attendees at McPhail’s first session, and who now has lofty hopes for a club he has helped grow from its ignominious re-start.

“We’ve transitioned from the Scottish League to the North East League and we’ve won their cup and their league, so we’re heading in the right direction,” Clarke told the PA news agency.

“The main goal is to get into League 1 and make ourselves a semi-pro outfit. We’d need more participation and backing and it’s a bit of a journey, but we feel like if Midlands and Cornwall can do it, then why can’t we?

“We’re starting to break down that stigma against league, we’ve got our home base at the Royal High and we’re starting to benefit from a massive player pool in Edinburgh so there’s no reason it can’t be done.”

The Eagles will take another small step on Saturday, although they will start as significant underdogs against the National Conference League stalwarts, in a match set to be streamed live on BBC platforms.