A new year demands a new approach to the amateur game

Talking grassroots Rugby League with Phil Hodgson

2013 hasn’t been a bad year for amateur Rugby League, even if it closed with torrid scenes on and off the pitch at the Big Fellas Stadium, Post Office Road, Featherstone.

The players of Stanningley and West Hull under 18s did themselves, their clubs and their sport a real disservice by their conduct in the Xamax BARLA under-18s Yorkshire Cup Final – as did the folk in the main stand who also got involved in the mayhem – and I’ve no doubt that BARLA bosses, and those who run each club so well, will take a dim view of what was a disgraceful episode.

Thankfully Hunslet Old Boys and Thornhill Trojans, both of whom were involved in a brawl in the Hamuel Reichenbacher BARLA Yorkshire Cup Final of two years ago, conducted themselves in exemplary fashion in the Open Age decider, not least Trojans coach James Ratcliffe, who sought (wrongly in my opinion) to deflect the blame for a heavy defeat from his players onto himself.

That was a stylish way to lose, while Old Boys head coach Paul McShane has already served early evidence that he will be a fine coach at professional level one day.

Talking about stylish ways to lose, a vivid memory of 2013 for me is of England Women’s defeat at the hands of Australia, also at Featherstone Rovers, in the Festival of World Cups. The whole event was a huge success, thanks largely to the superb work of the RFL’s organisers, and England Women, who came third in the competition, were true winners in the way they illustrated to an appreciative audience just how great the female version of our sport can be.

Sharlston, meanwhile, don’t know too much about losing, having lifted five cups from five available in 2012-13. Bizarrely, however, they have been excluded from the Challenge Cup in what may come to be seen as a defining act in the age-old war between the RFL and BARLA.

Amateur Rugby League sides, meanwhile, have until midnight tomorrow to submit their entries to what remain the biggest knockout competitions in this country, if not the world.

Not that many club administrators will, I reckon, be focussing too much on such matters as the seconds tick down to 2014; nor, I imagine, will BARLA Chair Sue Taylor and her colleagues at that precise moment.

More likely she will, by that stage, be reflecting at least subconsciously on high interest in the Ace Insurance (Europe) BARLA National Cup and the Xamax Youth & Junior Cups.

There was, it has to be admitted, a smaller than usual entry to the Open Age competition last season, although the action along the route to Fylde, where Sharlston Rovers and Wibsey Warriors fought out a classic final, remained vibrant enough.

I’d like to think that BARLA’s repeated statements that all amateur – or, if you prefer, community – teams can become involved will be taken on board by grassroots clubs around the land, as there’s nothing like knockout fare to get the pulses racing.

I understand that some folk at Red Hall, as well as at West Yorkshire House, would love every Open Age team in the country to be entered automatically, even if the logistics of different seasons would have to be addressed, as would geographical issues.

Hopefully that time will come, sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, I’d like to think that the 2013-14 BARLA National Cups will act as a springboard for revamped competitions at all age levels.

One man who knows plenty about the National Cup, and how to win it, is Gary Murdock.

The Cumbrian made his name as player-coach of Ellenborough Rangers, who appeared in successive finals – both at Salford – in the mid-nineties, winning one and losing the other.

Both were classics, with Skirlaugh edging the first and Dudley Hill pipping Rangers in the second.

Murdock also steered Elbra to fame in the Challenge Cup, notably with a victory over Hunslet Hawks.

He’s now at the helm at Ellenborough’s neighbours, Maryport, who enjoyed a clean sweep of trophies in the Cumberland League in 2013 and who are showing signs of emulating Rangers by rising to the heights.

The Port will help Murdock in that aim through their imaginative committee, on which Paul Williamson plays a central role.

A press release received a week or two ago illustrates just why Maryport are on the up and up. A concern following the switch to summer rugby in the far north west is that, for a variety of reasons, it’s harder to be sure which coaches, never mind players, will turn up.

For that reason, among a few others, the Port have elected to rotate their coaches between their first and second teams, with Murdock in overall charge and offering guidance to the coaches themselves.

It’s a neat idea, and typical of Williamson’s ability to think laterally. I, for one, will certainly be keeping an eye on how things develop for the ambitious West Cumbrian side, who have in their sights for 2014 the Cumbria Men’s Amateur League title.

I’ll also, for the umpteenth time in two decades, be keeping an eye on how relations develop between BARLA and the RFL.

I’d imagine that Murdock, like any coach in any sport, insists – in fact, probably takes for granted – that his players will work together for the common cause.

That, simply, is how it has to be. Because men play for the same team doesn’t automatically mean that they’re the best of buddies; in fact on occasion there may be real enmity between teammates, possibly involving women.

But all that has to be put to one side for the sake of the team and anyone who, for example, deliberately throws a `hospital pass’ to someone he dislikes will soon be given short shrift by his coach and everyone else.

Quite right, too. So how is it, then, that our sport’s administrators don’t always work, similarly, in the common cause?

The RFL and BARLA are – or should be – operating in harmony with the aim of jointly nurturing our sport.

That rarely happens, as was sadly illustrated before Christmas by the announcement by the RFL of which teams will be involved in the Challenge Cup in 2014.

While the two bodies may be at loggerheads – and have been for as long as I can remember – they are also both prone to infighting. Disagreements between professional clubs, to the detriment of the sport, stretch from the days of the Northern Union to the recent fiasco when the representatives of several Super League clubs walked out of a meeting.

There is, similarly, far too much infighting at BARLA.

Neutral observers such as yours truly find all this very dispiriting, and I can’t see Rugby League moving forward properly until such time as everyone learns from players, and works positively for the cause.

A landmark event of 2013 was the death of Nelson Mandela, whose lifelong struggles involved issues rather more pressing than those of any football code.

On his release, after 27 years of captivity, Mandela eschewed bitterness over his treatment and insisted “let bygones be bygones.”

Surely, if Nelson Mandela could say that after what he’d suffered, folk in British Rugby League can do the same.

My New Year’s wish is that, in 2014, bygones really will be bygones – between the RFL and BARLA, and internally at both organisations. Only then can we build properly on the World Cup, and prosper.

A Happy New Year to all our readers.