RFL sparks fury over grassroots fees

I’ve been gratified, over the past year or so, to be able to regularly praise the Rugby Football League over the way it’s protected the interests of the amateur game in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Many at the coal-face have, I believe, felt the same way. And gone, it seemed, were the interminable fist-fights between the RFL and BARLA (and other grassroots bodies).

Not now, though, it appears. It’s been dispiriting during the past week having to field very many concerns from clubs and leagues who have been stirred to something like fury by the RFL’s move to introduce annual membership fees (£25 for adults and £20 for juniors) on players.

It’s almost as though, after a long and, I have to say, easy rather than uneasy truce, civil war is again erupting.

Whether those who run amateur outfits need to be called to arms is, I suppose, at the crux of the matter. The RFL has stressed that, contrary to allegations made by a number of clubs in today’s issue of League Express, there has been nothing secretive about the way the game’s governing body has set about introducing membership fees. And, as evidence, Director of Participation and Development Marc Lovering has reminded everyone that the concept was mentioned at a delegates’ meeting of the National Conference League a little over a year ago, and that Youth & Junior Leagues were consulted last December.

Members of clubs involved in those leagues will know better than I do about that, while I’ve reminded myself to try to keep more abreast about what is happening at the Community Board, which is charged with overseeing the grassroots game in this country. Some say that nothing comes out of the Community Board, but that’s not true. Not quite, anyway. There are no press releases issued, that’s for sure, at least as I can see. But minutes are on public display on the RFL’s web site and, in view of the heated exchanges of the last few days, I sought out recent postings, the last of which was in December 2020.

They make interesting reading, not least because the possibility of membership fees being voluntary rather than compulsory has broached, although nothing seems to have come of that.

The Community Board has, however, been considering membership fees for a decade or so, so the notion isn’t new. But that doesn’t make it popular and it will be interesting to see whether clubs can be persuaded to accept an initiative which the RFL insists is necessary if it is to continue to provide services and support that perhaps sometimes gets taken for granted.

We’ll see – although one aspect which should be clarified regards insurance, which I happen to know something about. It’s not, in my view, the case that clubs will be saved administrative costs if players are insured directly through membership rather than through clubs, given that the type of Personal Accident cover we are talking about is Capital Sums (i.e. for death and permanent total disablement) rather than for weekly benefits. Thankfully, capital sums claims are rare; in fact the vast majority of clubs, I’m glad to say, will never have to make one, so that aspect’s something of a red herring, albeit I don’t blame non-specialist staff at the RFL for believing otherwise.

The key question may be whether players as well as club and league administrators can be swung round. As it happens I spoke to a couple of former players from my old club over the weekend. One was adamant that £25 was nothing to worry about and that it was silly for anyone to complain. The other felt that we could end up with, in his words, “a lot of ringers” playing as no one would want to fork out extra cash (he reminded me at that point how hard it can sometimes be collecting subs on match-days). The fact that the two lads went against what I would have expect each to say was, incidentally, surprising, which goes to show that you never be certain how folk will react to innovations.

On a wider front the RFL insist that grassroots clubs will be better off financially as they won’t have to pay such as insurance premiums because players will be covered by their membership fees. And the RFL has also stressed that procedures are in place to help those who may struggle to meet those fees (£25 per annum for adults and £20 for youth and juniors, while it seems that volunteers also have to fork out). There may be very many people in exactly that category given that we are emerging – hopefully – from a thirteen-month’ coronavirus lockdown. Even allowing for the fact that fees will not be imposed until 2022, the fact remains that Rugby League is often played in what are described as areas of social deprivation. And given that the RFL has pledged to help those who cannot afford the fees it could quite feasibly turn out that little will be actually received, in which case a great deal of upset will have been caused for next to nothing.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the issue in financial terms, I find it disconcerting that the RFL will be establishing direct contact with players through the membership scheme.

It may be purely coincidental but it chimes with successful attempts by previous Red Hall regimes to bypass BARLA, Regional Leagues and District Leagues. Now, it seems, clubs too may be on the verge of being sidelined. As I say, though, that is probably entirely coincidental.

Perhaps the idea put forward by a Heavy Woollen League stalwart that RFL representatives meet clubs at a venue (it would have to be large!) to explain directly the background to this issue should be pursued although, as the RFL’s Marc Lovering says in today’s issue, that’s difficult in the current climate.

Meanwhile I was very saddened to learn late last week of the death of Alfrieda Kindon, who was a driving force behind Salford City Roosters (previously Eccles) for something like four decades.

Alfrieda passed away last Thursday (22 April) after battling with a brain tumour for over a year, and recently had a fall, I understand.

She, her husband Rod and such as Ken Roberts were real stalwarts of the amateur game in Salford and Manchester, and she also served the Manchester ARL and the National Conference League with great distinction.

Equally importantly, she was one of those people, with whom grassroots Rugby League is so blessed, who was always ready and willing to help others with support and advice, which I experienced at first hand many times.

My commiserations are extended to Rod and to Alfrieda’s family.

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