There is a sense of pride that fills the air every time Michael Lawrence speaks. Having represented his hometown club almost 300 times, the 30-year-old is familiar with the feeling of gratification that engulfs him whenever he steps on to the pitch for Huddersfield Giants. But more recently there is an extra element of motivation in everything Lawrence does.
Rugby league has made no secret of its desire to become a more culturally diverse and welcoming sport, and players such as Lawrence will be vital in that battle. Having recently become the sole black British captain in Super League, Lawrence is acutely aware of the extra responsibility that comes his way as a result and the importance of taking on such a prominent role.
“It’s great for young black players from similar communities like myself to see someone being successful in the game,” Lawrence says. “I do see myself as someone young black players can hopefully look up to, and maybe pick up a rugby ball and be inspired by. That’s something which I’m very proud of.”
Many within rugby league feel the sport has failed to connect with the multicultural societies in the sport’s heartlands of northern England. Huddersfield, with its strong Caribbean community, is a prime example. The challenge for the game is to make genuine inroads into those communities, and persuade young boys and girls to try rugby league.
“I think the whole of West Yorkshire is an example of how we could do more,” Lawrence says. “You’ve got towns like Batley and Dewsbury, which have a lot of multicultural communities, and then places like Leeds and Huddersfield have huge Caribbean communities. The more kids from those communities play the game, the better we can tap into the talent that’s there.
“We always talk as a sport of how the player pool is shrinking, but the way to resolve that is by getting into these communities and finding out how we can get youngsters playing rugby league.”
Lawrence is certainly front and centre in that battle. He is the only player on the sport’s new Inclusion Board, which was set up in February to tackle the sport’s issues with diversity.
“I see that as a huge responsibility and a huge honour,” he says. “Being the only player on there, I’m representing the professional game and the views of all the players. I have some passionate views about how we can change as a sport moving forward. If I can be the voice of the players, and help us connect better with certain communities, that’s a really big deal.”
As someone who hails from one of those communities in Huddersfield, does Lawrence believe rugby league is falling short at present? “I definitely think there’s more we can do. Rugby league has always tried to be inclusive, but that’s really stepped up with the creation of this board. The ball never stops rolling, and I know we have a big year ahead of us.”
Lawrence will also be at the heart of another potentially gamechanging moment for rugby league’s diversity battle this year: Jamaica’s maiden appearance at the World Cup. The opportunity to make an impact is not lost on Lawrence.
“It’s enormous for everyone involved, but probably more so for Jamaica, with this being our first one. There are all sorts of nations and cultures that are going to be represented, but we’ve been really trying to force through a connection with Caribbean communities and this could be our chance to do it like never before. We can give people an identity, and connect them to rugby league in a brand new way.”
Lawrence will also continue his personal mission to try to influence and inspire young black players in his home town through his role at Huddersfield, too. He frequently spends time in the community trying to engage young black children but his new appointment as the club’s captain affords him an extra sense of pride and responsibility.
“This town, and this club, means everything to me. You can’t really leave the house without someone talking about Huddersfield Giants to you. I get that same level of pride today as I did when I made my debut for the club. To be able to show people that there’s a pathway through to the top, that’s a big deal for me.”
On-field success has always been in short supply for Lawrence throughout his Huddersfield career, but there is cautious optimism that, under their new coach, Ian Watson, the Giants can shrug off their underachievers tag and challenge for honours in the years ahead. No one more than Lawrence knows the impact that could have in the town.
“We’ve a small bunch of supporters here, but they’re very loyal. I know how much they want success, and we all do, believe me. But success for me is twofold; to be able to win something with this club would be amazing. But to be able to convince young black players to get involved with rugby league off the back of it could be huge for the game. I’ll continue to give everything I can for this club and the people of this town.”