Grassroots rugby on the road to recovery

The imminent return to action is music to the ears of League Express grassroots rugby correspondent Phil Hodgson 

“Roadmaps revive an old story.”

So sang Roger Chapman, the lead vocalist of one of the finest bands to come out of England – Family – around half a century ago.

A couple of lines later in the song Between Blue and Me Chapman warbled (as only he could, with his very distinctive voice): “And though there are words we’re exchanging, when will I see you again? It’s been a year since you were here, my friend.”

All very prescient to Rugby League, although I doubt very much that the Leicester band had our sport in mind when they were producing the superb album ‘Fearless’ – the cover of the ‘Best of Family’ album suggests that they were keen fans of Leicester City.

Anyway, Covid-19 has, as we are all too aware, become an old story, and it’s to be hoped that the roadmaps produced by the Government and the Rugby Football League can be followed through to the desired destination: namely, everyone being able to play, coach, administer and watch our sport (which, when I come to think about it, is similar to Family in that it’s at one and the same time hugely popular, yet somehow slips under the radar. There are a number of reasons for that in Rugby League’s case of course, but that’s another matter entirely.

How will our roadmap pan out? Well, it’s going to be a route that could clearly involve lots of diversions and side routes, not least because clubs are going to be consulted very closely as to their needs and issues.

That’s certainly the case with the National Conference League, which in effect has asked member teams to confirm by Monday 15th March  whether they wish to play this year, with friendlies due from late April, localised competitive matches from early May and a league structure kicking in towards the end of June.

Clubs will have wide-ranging observations to make, I imagine. One NCL coach I spoke to last week was concerned about whether travelling any distance (which would obviously be necessary if divisions as they stood twelve months ago are to be reintroduced) is desirable. And it remains to be seen whether it will even be allowed by the Government at the grass roots this year.

Then there’s the fact that some divisions in the NCL can, from time to time, house more teams from a certain region than elsewhere. That applied to one section a few years ago, when clubs faced several trips to Cumbria. And I seem to recall something similar applying at one time with Hull.

So that’s an aspect to be addressed – as is that of crowds. As I reflected recently, amateur Rugby League tends to be a big draw for spectators, more than most if not all other sports for sure. Those spectators draw in vital funds for our clubs, whether at pitch-side (even if some folk seem to step back from the perimeter fencing just as a club stalwart approached with a bucket) or in the clubhouse.

Again, whether spectators will be allowed at games at all is a matter primarily for the Government. If they’re not, well, there’s a problem, particularly for those clubs that play in public parks. I doubt very much that such outfits have any right to stop anyone strolling up to the touchline; this, indeed, was a factor in the RFL not publicising fixtures when ‘pilot’ games were arranged last autumn.

Another consideration has been put to me. What if a club is handed, through a quirk of the fixture list, two long-distance away games at the start of the campaign? Such trips would be costly and the fact is that not all clubs have the finds right now to meet the outlay.

So there’s much to discuss. But at least there’s a discussion to be had, which is invigorating after a year-long hibernation, and I’m confident that the RFL, leagues and clubs will tease out satisfactory solutions. Lets’ hope so anyway. As Family told us back in the early 1970s in ‘Burlesque’: “Rolling and tumbling ain’t done me no harm.” That’s an apt take on the joys and glories of Rugby League; the more I think about it the more likely it is that Chapman and his mates were closet fans.

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