Talking Grassroots


As the 2009/10 amateur Rugby League season finally drifts to a close, with last Wednesday’s CMS Yorkshire League Unison Premier Division Top Four Final between Hunslet Warriors and Queens at Oulton bringing the curtain down on several months of compelling action, attention focuses on the Co-operative Rugby League Conference and the teams, nationwide, who carry the 13-a-side flag.

I’m particularly interested in the sides beyond what were once the heartlands of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire; outfits who are, in my view, what the RLC is all about.

I stated at a recent Four Seasons meeting – the one held at the George Hotel, Huddersfield – that the RLC is one of the success stories of the last decade or so, and I stand by that view.

It’s incredible, and heartening, that our sport is now played on a regular basis in, I believe, every shire in the land, and I certainly wish that had been the case in my own playing days.

Back in the mid-70s I turned down a job in Darlington. There were a number of reasons for that, but the main one was that I would no longer have been able to play Rugby League.

That’s a deterrent which no longer holds for young blokes wishing to further their careers, and I have to wonder how things would have panned out for me if I’d made the move, over three decades ago.

I probably wouldn’t now be writing this column, for a start, as I’d have taken a different route in life entirely. Having said that the presence of an amateur Rugby League side in the area may not, in itself, have been enough to persuade me to head to the north east as the fact that the RLC is summer-based could have proved to be an insurmountable stumbling block for me.

I didn’t enjoy summer rugby (ie matches played in May, June and August) in those days. Running about in sweltering heat on sun baked grounds, which were often dangerous and would have led to instant postponements had the matches in question been scheduled for January or February, wasn’t my idea of fun, but beggars can’t be choosers and I’d probably have bitten the bullet and tried it out.

Sadly, I also suspect that I wouldn’t have lasted the course. It takes someone with a lot of commitment to give up other activities, so many of which are on offer during the summer but unavailable in winter, to play Rugby League each Saturday during June, July and August. Keen as I am on our game, I’m not altogether sure I’m obsessed to the required degree.

It may have been that I’d have opted for the unthinkable and switched codes, simply to have enjoyed sport in more comfortable conditions and at a more accommodating time for anyone wanting a more rounded lifestyle.

I’d already played a lot of soccer during my early teens before packing it in because I found it less than satisfying; it’s a game that, for me, never really gets going and doesn’t offer much opportunity for proper physical contract.

Similarly, I’d dabbled with rugby union, which I gave up because it’s a sport which – particularly in those days – focuses largely on kicking, and is one which tends to prompt players to take, rather than break, a tackle.

I do think, though, that the prospect of having to play Rugby League in summer could well have driven me to try the 15-a-side game, and I wonder how many lads are pondering on that right now as the vision of summer rugby looms large?

I happen to know a few people in rugby union, and their eyes are starting to light up at the thought that grassroots Rugby League could, if the result of the Four Seasons ballot decrees – and, crucially, if Leagues and clubs accept the vote – switch from winter.

Often, in sport, you have to consider how the opposition will react when you make decisions. An obvious example is in team selection; what, for example, would Australia, France and New Zealand have thought on learning that Great Britain selectors had (as they did) opted not to pick the legendary Alex Murphy?

I imagine they were delighted.

It’s similar in this instance. The RFU will, I’m certain, be monitoring events closely and, after the voting on the Four Seasons issue ends on Sunday, will doubtless be hoping that Rugby League switches wholesale to summer. Such a move will, inevitably, lead to many lads giving up our game and moving across, possibly with the intention of their switch being temporary but, perhaps, destined never to return.

On the other hand, they may do what many players in the RLC beyond the three main northern counties do – play the full rugby union season and make themselves available for Rugby League in the slot between.

That seems to work quite well outside Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, but I’m not too sure it will be so successful within those shires.

For now, though, the lads of the RLC will simply be getting on with their game (although I hope they, too, are being asked their views on when we should play – it would be unfair if they were to be disenfranchised) and it’s wonderful to see some of the names in the listings.

Hammersmith – a district in which I’ve spent many happy hours on Wembley trips and other jaunts – are battling hard with St Albans Centurions and local rivals West London Sharks for the Southern Premier title. And there are some very well-established clubs in the Midlands Premier, from Coventry Bears to Gloucestershire, through Bristol Sonics, Birmingham Bulldogs, Derby City and Leicester Storm.

Wales is becoming increasingly vibrant. Valley Cougars and Cardiff Demons both went into Saturday’s Premier programme boasting 100 per cent records, and the section is underpinned by ambitious outfits such as Bridgend, Newport Titans, Blackwood and CPC Bears.

Those, however, are all little more than the tip of a growing iceberg and I really do take my hat off to lads who are ready to play in conditions which are potentially what Wakefield Trinity Wildcats coach John Kear described, after his side’s comfortable Engage Super League victory in blistering heat over Harlequins RL last month, as ”horrendous”. Congratulations to them; they’ve far more bottle than I ever had.

Talking of “bottle”, I was dismayed to learn last week that Steve Gafney is due to retire. Gafney has worked tirelessly in the last year or more for the Rugby Football League, alongside Ray Tennant, in pushing ticket sales opportunities for amateur clubs, many of whose coffers are now in a healthier state through imaginative deals involving the Gillette Four Nations tournament, the Carnegie Challenge Cup Final and the Engage Super League Grand Final. Steve and Ray have travelled countless miles in the cause and it’s always a pleasure to see them, including last week when they called on me with the news. They will always be welcome at Methley Royals, where they’ve worked hard at facilitating our planned fixture at London Skolars on the eve of the Challenge Cup Final at the end of August.

On a truly sad note, it was only in this column, seven days ago, that I was singing the praises of Iggesund Cumberland League PRO Joan Blair and lamenting her decision to step down from her role as PRO; one which she’d undertaken with aplomb for many years.

A week later and, unbelievably and harrowingly, I’m writing about her death. “What you saw is what you got” was the assessment of her husband Roger, and it’s one with which everyone who was fortunate to know her will agree. Joan was typical of people from her proud county in that she was forthright and to the point and, as such, she got her job done with superb efficiency, season after season, and earned the respect and affection of everyone with whom she came in contact.

She told me, when I rang her to commiserate over the recent tragic events in Cumbria, that she and Roger were looking forward to taking things a little easier together after having given so much, for so many years, to the cause of amateur Rugby League. She will be sadly missed and my heartfelt condolences go out to Roger and his family.

(These are the views of the author of the article.

Steve Manning
BARLA Media Manager

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