A freedom of sorts

Talking Grassroots Rugby League with Phil Hodgson of League Express

There was very good news – as far as it stands anyway – from the RFL on Friday ahead of today’s so-called ‘freedom day’, as the government continues to relax its lockdown restrictions.

How long that easing will last remains to be seen, of course, but we can only work to how things currently are and it’s good, from that perspective, to know that crowds can turn up at amateur games without restriction, and that post-match hospitality is again allowed (even if not everyone may not be quite ready, as yet, to enjoy it).

Similarly, teams can congregate in changing rooms, up to a point anyway, and it also seems that players will be able to celebrate scores. But scrums are not yet being allowed which, to my mind, is fair enough in the circumstances. I think we all have to watch that one with caution though. I fervently hope that they will be allowed to return at the earliest opportunity, and not ‘quietly’ forgotten about, otherwise we could all be in trouble – my newsagent, for example, told me early on Saturday morning that he would not be viewing the Challenge Cup Final as he can’t abide the game without them. Lots of other people feel the same way as Mick; moves should be in place, in my opinion, to bring back contested scrums sooner rather than later, rather than get rid of them altogether. But that’s a whole other subject….

It seems to me that, despite the government’s statement and the RFL’s entirely correct follow-up, we’re a long way from emerging out of the Covid-19 crisis. The RFL tried to spell that out, in fact, stating: “The situation is likely to get worse before it improves if 19 July is perceived as ‘freedom day’ and infection rates continue to rise. We would urge clubs to take a pragmatic and cautious approach to the easing of restrictions, and message accordingly.”
That was the big message, to my mind, to come out of Friday’s statement – together with the announcement by Community Board chair Sandy Lindsay MBE that notes will be circulated quickly from all further meetings, which will perhaps go some way to putting to bed the view that the Board is a sinister body that is up to no good.
The message that we are not out of the woods by any means is affirmed by actual match results (or rather, non-results).

Too many games are being postponed or cancelled through the impact of Covid-19 for comfort. The National Conference League, for example, is being increasingly hit each week, and of the last seven days’ programme (which was truncated in any case because of the BetFred Challenge Cup Final) only two of six games went ahead.

That’s worrying, as are emerging concerns that the Cumbrian section of this year’s regionalised National Conference League (League A) might not complete enough fixtures to enable teams to qualify for the play-offs.

We’ll see on that one, and we’ll keep our collective fingers crossed for sure.

On a much brighter note in Cumbria (or is it Lancashire in this instance?) it was great to learn last week that Barrow Island’s Rating Lane has been renamed John Jefferson Park in honour of their great club servant.

I got to know Jeffo on a couple of BARLA tours to Italy a few years ago. He’s a top bloke, Rugby League through and through, who has given his club, his county and his country magnificent service for decades. His old mate Paddy McAteer pays fulsome and deserved tribute in this week’s issue of League Express.

Two other people who hit the news last week (too late for Monday’s issue) are Neil Horton and Ellis McCarthy, both of whom were on the match-officiating staff at Wembley. Their honours are fully merited and will, I’m sure, lead to even bigger and better things.

I’ve known Neil for many years in several capacities, as a coach, player and match official, and can vouch for his integrity, attention to detail and commitment. His first game as a referee, I believe, was a Christmas ‘friendly’ involving my old club Methley Royals, in which a team of resident villagers played the out of towners. It wasn’t necessarily as easy a match to control as I’d a tad naively imagined but Neil, through his experience and personality, ensured that all went smoothly.

Ellis, if I remember rightly, also cut his teeth at Methley, at our second team matches, and has more than fulfilled his early promise. In fact I’m quite proud of having, even in a very small way, been involved in both men’s careers.

They will have enjoyed Wembley, I’m sure, and what an occasion it was. The Challenge Cup Final was a real thriller, and the 1895 Final was also fantastic, and reminded me of how old Premiership Final double-headers at Old Trafford invariably served up equal, or even better, entertainment in the Division Two game than in the Division One fixture.

I was already musing on that aspect after having received the match report on Friday’s NCL match between Thornhill Trojans and Underbank Rangers. You can read my write-up elsewhere in today’s issue, in which I hope I’ve conveyed something of the drama that Rugby League, at all levels, throws up so often.

It’s a reminder that amateur Rugby League action is invariably compelling and exciting. I’m sure that readers of this column – who will be well aware of the grassroots game’s attractions anyway – will be hungry to get to games over the coming weeks. And many could start by getting along to Eton Manor RFC in Wanstead, north London, this Saturday, for the London League’s youth and junior finals. It should be a wonderful day – and admission is free!

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