Grassroots: Back into hibernation again

One of my first thoughts when listening with the rest of the nation to Boris Johnson’s statement on Saturday evening was “it looks like this puts paid to amateur games in November under the Rugby Football League’s ‘return to action plan’”.

Ever one for procedures, I took some hope in the fact that the Prime Minister will have to put his case to parliament on Wednesday before a national lockdown can be invoked the following day. For all that, though, it has to be said that sport, while certainly important, is not quite of the highest priority as the Covid-19 crisis continues to affect all sections of society.

Parliament will decide whether to accept Mr Johnson’s recommendations, in full or in part, but it seems at this stage that the Rugby Football League is resigned to no more on-field activity taking place at the grassroots this year.

Marc Lovering, the RFL’s Director of Participation and Development, was commendably quick in getting back to me on Saturday, emailing the following statement published in this week’s League Express:

“We haven’t yet seen any formal regulations but all the indications are that amateur sports will be placed on hold during the new lockdown period.
“If that is the case then we will continue to follow the Government advice guidance and law, as we have since the start of the pandemic. That unfortunately means no Rugby League activity will take place (other than virtually) during the remainder of 2020.”
Lovering added: “Whilst frustrating, we hope the vast majority of youth and junior clubs and teams who opted into the autumn activity have had the opportunity to play.
“Whilst it took a huge amount of work to get teams back playing this autumn I’m sure everyone involved will think it was worthwhile to see our younger players back on the pitch, even if only for one or two games.”
He concluded: “The limited activity that has taken place this autumn will help us facilitate a return of all age groups from January. Work to shape what 2021 will look like will continue with all stakeholders over the coming weeks.”

Lovering is merely being realistic in stating that there is unlikely to be any amateur Rugby League action (other than virtual) before the turn of the year but he is absolutely correct to stress that players have at least been able to experience a game or two, and that much valuable groundwork has been laid for a hoped-for return in January.

Much will be clearer on Wednesday, of course. But if the plug is indeed pulled, as we all expect it will be, it has to be said that folk at the RFL and at those clubs that bought into the ‘return to action’ strategy have worked exceedingly hard in recent weeks to give players the chance to enjoy the game they love. And for that we should all extend our grateful thanks.

The stalwarts at Swindon St George will perhaps be at the front of that particular queue. I have to smile to myself when I hear people state that Rugby League is limited to the ‘M62 corridor.’ There’s a kernel of truth in that, of course, but it’s still a long way off the reality.

Swindon used the ‘return to action’ window to play their first ever Under 10s game, against the equally vibrant Oxford Cavaliers. As revealed in last week’s League Express, the Wiltshire outfit’s recently formed junior section also involves teams at Under 13s, Under 9s, Under 8s, Under 7s, Under 6s and Under 5s.

That’s impressive and debunks, I think, the misguided notion that Rugby League is solely a northern game.

So did the news that Medway Dragons of Kent broke new ground by fielding two Open Age teams on the same afternoon.

Their Head Coach Martin Coyd was understandably and rightly cock-a-hoop. I know the feeling – my own club ran two sides for a couple of seasons a few years ago, and the day we played first- and second-team matches on the same afternoon was, as one of our lads said at the time, the best moment in our history (made even better by the fact that our senior side pulled off a cup win against hosts who had put 50 past them a few weeks earlier).

These are heady times for Medway, and Coyd rightly paid tribute to the tremendous work done by the RFL recently in facilitating such matches, with several due to have been played elsewhere on Saturday in what will perhaps be looked back on in future years as an oasis of action in this most unusual autumn.

Another indication of the wide spread of Rugby League these days was the news that the England Universities team, which has been unable to play since the lockdown initially struck, has nevertheless retained the backing of its very supportive sponsors. This was a heart-warming revelation and I suspect that a key factor in those sponsors’ loyalty will have been the very pro-active approach of England’s manager David Butler and his Head Coach Richard Tate.

Let’s hope that those two, and their players, will have a Four Nations competition against Ireland, Scotland and Wales to look forward to next summer, following the cancellation of the Student World Cup. I had firm evidence of how important the Four Nations is to players when Hunslet’s Matty Chrimes recently stated, in a ‘Getting to Know’ article in the magazine South of the River, that his best memory in Rugby League involved winning that competition with England Universities. And Chrimes’ teammate Harry Kidd spoke similarly of his experience of representing England in Australia. Let’s hope players of all four home countries will be able to enjoy similar moments in 2021.

Meanwhile, I was saddened to learn last week that a player from ‘outside’ the heartlands has passed away.

Chris Greenhall grew up in Norfolk and studied in Cardiff, where he first played Rugby League, for the Institute of Higher Education.

He proved to be very good at his adopted code, and went on to play for Wales Students. A real enthusiast, he also helped set up the South Norfolk club, for whom he appeared in the first Southern Conference Grand Final in 1998.

Chris Greenhall, who clearly had boundless enthusiasm, tragically lost his fight against cancer and passed away seven days ago at the age of 51.

He will be sadly missed. The condolences of all at League Express are extended to his family and friends, and to all in the Welsh and Norfolk Rugby League arenas.

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