Black History Month: Lawrence a role model

22 Oct 2021

Black History Month: Lawrence a role model

Role models have an important place in sport. They are leaders who can inspire those around them and pave the way for future generations to follow in their footsteps.

You will struggle to find a better role model in rugby league than Michael Lawrence. A one-club man, skipper of his home-town team and the only current black captain in Betfred Super League, Lawrence is a passionate driver of diversity and inclusion and a shining example of the hard-working and selfless ideals that are innate within our sport.

These characteristics have been engrained in Lawrence from an early age. His dad – a hard-working man from a working-class background - instilled the value of working hard, teaching Lawrence that hard work will always pay dividends.

So, when Lawrence was introduced to rugby league as a youngster, watching his hometown team from the terraces at Huddersfield, he knew that one day he wanted emulate his heroes from yesteryear.

Lawrence spent his amateur days at local rugby league club, Newsome Panthers. It was there during his formative years that his amateur coach and former Leeds, Huddersfield, England & Great Britain star Darren Fleary saw something in the aspiring rugby league star. And thanks to Fleary’s unwavering belief in a young Michael Lawrence, he was able to achieve his boyhood dream.

Darren Fleary leading the charge for Leeds Rhinos against Wakefield Trinity, 2002.

Lawrence explained: ““The biggest influence for me rugby wise was my amateur coach, Darren Fleary. He had a major impact on my playing career when I was an amateur.

“I think if it wasn’t for him coming to the club and taking a shining to me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve got a lot to thank him for.”

 Now, after well over 300 appearances for the Giants during a glittering career in the sport, Lawrence’s attention is firmly on inspiring more young people across a multitude of diverse and often overlooked communities across the north of England.

As the only current player on the Rugby Football League’s diversity and inclusion board, Lawrence is arguably the voice for the professional game on a number of key issues and topics within the sport.

The inclusion board have already made significant indents across the sport, with new additions to its independent disciplinary panel to strengthen the diverse representation when tackling important issues that arise across both the men’s and women’s game.

And that’s just the start. The board are continuing to make inroads throughout the sport, from elite to grassroots level.

“The board are looking for each (Super League) club to have inclusion ambassadors, so each club will have a player that can have training (on diversity and inclusion) and take on an ambassador role to drive diversity and inclusion at each club,” explained Lawrence.

“They are also going to make grants available to community clubs in underprivileged areas where you tend to get diverse communities, because we’ve seen there’s a lot of challenges around why young people don’t play sport in these communities.

“Whether that be paying subs or access to equipment – sometimes these areas need that little bit of help to get up and running. So, there’s going to be a grant made available that they can apply for so that everybody’s got the opportunity to play the game.”

It isn’t just on the RFL’s inclusion board where Lawrence is making a difference. He is part of a Jamaican national team that were set to make their first ever appearance at a Rugby League World Cup this month.

After its postponement earlier this year, Jamaica must now wait 12 more months. But that hasn’t stopped the team from having a significant impact across West Yorkshire and in particular Leeds, where they were set to be based for the showstopper tournament.

The players have been embedded in several diverse communities across the area with the aim of encouraging more young people to pick up a rugby ball and get involved in the sport.

“It’s been great, they absolutely love it. We’ve been getting out there and doing sessions; there was a big tournament held at Chapeltown Cougars with local kids from the schools round there.

“That area is a very diverse area so the kids that are coming are from all different backgrounds and nationalities. They’re all playing rugby league and playing with smiles on their faces.”

And it hasn’t stopped there. Last Friday, Jamaica played their first international match of the year against England Knights as part of Jordan Turner’s testimonial, with those same youngsters from Chapeltown Cougars experiencing their first ever taste of live, top-level rugby league.

“At the game on Friday there was a group of young players from Chapeltown Cougars that have never been to a live rugby league game before.

“They all came down to watch the international game and even though we lost by 50, they all had smiles on their faces and enjoyed the game. All the boys went over after the game to have photos with them.

“I think small things like that inspires you and as a young kid, you remember things like that. Hopefully that will stick with them and inspire them to continue to play the sport and enjoy rugby league.”

Growing up, it was those type of experiences that drew Lawrence to the sport. Now, as a player that those Chapeltown Cougars youngsters will admire and aspire to emulate, Lawrence is acutely aware of his role as a rugby league player and as a role model for the next generation.

"I remember when I first started to break into the first team; you start to get your coaches and older players telling you that you’re going to be a role model now.

"I suppose as your career goes on you start to realise that more. The more you play, the more you start to get recognised around the town and from young kids in school and amateur rugby clubs.

“You want to set the best example possible for everyone around you and you need to carry yourself properly because there’s people watching you. So I try to show them the right way to act, how to play the game and how to be a good person. That’s one thing I pride myself on now. You want to be the best role model you can be.”