Fixtures to put a toll on players

Talking Rugby League with League Express editor Martyn Sadler

Last week Super League released its fixture schedule from July to September.

And my heart sank.

After last Thursday night listening to Castleford coach Daryl Powell asking why the Tigers and Hull FC had been drawn to play each other just five days after both teams had featured in two extremely challenging Challenge Cup semi-finals, here we were being presented with a situation where that inadequate preparation time for Super League clubs will be repeated again and again as the end of the season draws near.

With many coaches, including Hull FC’s Brett Hodgson, already saying they are down to a bare 21 players, I dread to think what will be happening by the time July turns into August.

Some clubs are already having to find players from anywhere they can and I wonder whether some of them will be able to field teams at all, regardless of any Covid-19 shocks, which caused two Super League matches to be postponed on Friday night.

In a year when most of us are hoping that England coach Shaun Wane will be able to win the World Cup, it seems that Super League is tying both of his hands behind his back while simultaneously chopping his legs off.

I hope I’m wrong, and it all works out fine.

Of course some Rugby League fans might point out that in the old days, clubs often used to play more than one match per week.

But the truth is that in those days Rugby League wasn’t such a high-speed collision game as it is today, with a much greater propensity to collision injuries.

As Daryl Powell pointed out in his press conference last Thursday night, the problem is that the people who make decisions like this have little or no experience of actually playing the game. They often claim to have player welfare uppermost in their minds, but their decisions don’t accord with those claims.

Even now I would urge the Super League clubs to have a rethink, if that’s possible, particularly given the fact that the government now looks unlikely to ease the lockdown restrictions on 21 June, as had originally been intended.

Young players making an impact

It’s a long time since a young player made his debut with as much immediate impact as Jason Qareqare did for Castleford Tigers last Thursday night.

After only 45 seconds 17-year-old Jason received a great pass from Michael Shenton and zipped down the wing, looking initially as though he intended to step inside Hull fullback Jake Connor, but then taking him on the outside while managing not to step into touch.

It was amazing to see such a young, inexperienced player get past Connor in that way and to my mind it was very reminiscent of how Martin Offiah used to beat fullbacks in his heyday.

I hadn’t heard about this young bloke before last Thursday night, but he certainly looks to have star quality, both on and off the field if his coach Daryl Powell’s comments about him are anything to go by.

And Jason has come into Rugby League from what appears to be quite an unusual route.

He is still a schoolboy and attends Queen Ethelburga’s College in North Yorkshire, which is reputed to be the most expensive private school in Yorkshire. To send a child into the sixth form there would set you back £40,000 per year for boarding pupils and £17,500 for day pupils.

But I was pleased to see the school celebrating Jason’s success on Twitter, combined with a photograph of him being back at school, and apparently his performance was the talk of the whole school on Friday.

I hope we see a lot more of him in the future.

Certainly his performance gave the lie to the idea that Castleford’s Academy can’t produce young stars, which the RFL’s initial decision on Academies, now thankfully reversed, seemed to be suggesting.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world Dominic Young was scoring his first NRL try for the Newcastle Knights in only his second NRL game.

Dominic, 19, joined the Knights from Huddersfield Giants, for whom he played two games in the last two seasons.

He’s a young giant playing on the left wing and he certainly didn’t look out of place playing for the Knights.

The Fox Sports commentators made great play of the fact that Dominic is hoping to play for Jamaica in this year’s World Cup and I suspect that many Australian viewers were probably unaware that Jamaica will be taking part in the tournament.

I can’t imagine that there are many other NRL players who qualify for the Jamaican national team.

Queen’s Birthday Honours

My congratulations to Kevin Sinfield for the OBE he richly deserves in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, and also to former RFL chief executive Nigel Wood, who has received the same honour for his lengthy service to Rugby League.

But in some ways I was most pleased with the MBEs awarded to the RFL Benevolent Fund general manager Steve Ball, who does so much good work with players who suffer serious injuries and other setbacks in life away from the field and Martin Blondel, the main man behind the Steve Prescott Foundation.

I haven’t met anyone in Rugby League who is more concerned with player welfare than Steve is.

“I am truly humbled by this award,” said Steve.

“I think it’s a reflection of the values of Rugby League as a sport. I’ve said before that we may not be the richest in the orthodox sense, because of the communities where the game has been strongest – but we are rich in values, and we take care of our own.

“That has been the role of the Benevolent Fund since it was established, and it’s been an honour and a privilege to work with so many brave people as they have come to terms with personal tragedy.

“To receive this recognition is a huge surprise to me, and I am genuinely moved.”

And the same applies to Martin Blondel, whose award is not just for his work with the Steve Prescott Foundation, but is also for the countless hours of charity work he has undertaken in his home town St Helens.

“To be recognised by the Queen in this manner is phenomenal and has not completely sunk in,” said Martin.

“I am feeling uncomfortable at receiving all the plaudits and would much rather be in the background pushing more inspirational people forward into the spotlight.

“This MBE is for everyone who contributed and supported The Eccleston Arms Essential Items project, none more so than the proprietor Andrew Mikhail, the owner of the Mikhail Group. Andrew fully backed my vision and made the improbable possible within hours. Andrew has also had a long battle against COVID and I am so pleased that he has come through the other side with a long recovery ahead. I want to share this award with Andrew, he is an exceptional person along with his great team at Mikhail Group.”

My congratulations to them all.

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