Rugby League”s ‘University Challenge’ goes on

Talking Grass Roots with Phil Hodgson

Amateur Rugby League has several events on its annual calendar that carry high resonance.

The BARLA National Cup Final is certainly one of them, as is the Yorkshire Cup Final, which has long boasted big crowds, especially when it’s been played during the Christmas break.

The Cumbria Cup and Lancashire Cup deciders would certainly also be on my list, although it’s sad that the latter has not taken place for quite a few years.

Then there’s the Women’s Challenge Cup Final, which has been a mainstay of the Easter Sunday slot for decades (some readers may be surprised to hear that, as the impression seems to be growing that there was no female RL before the RFL – or maybe more accurately, Super League clubs – began to show an interest.)

I also cannot overlook such as the Skanska (or President’s) Cup, which is not an event as such, more of an ongoing competition involving the likes of the Police, the Army, the RAF and the Royal Navy, together with British Teachers and sometimes, if memory serves, the Civil Service.

All get the pulses racing, as does the Southern Conference Grand Final and, for the last couple of decades, the National Conference League’s Grand Final. On the latter subject I’ve always been against a knockout competition to determine the championship, given that teams in the top flight have played each other once at home and once away. This year, however, it’s very different, with the NCL operating regional leagues because of the impact of Covid-19. Bring that particular final on, this time, for sure, I’m looking forward to it immensely.

All of which brings me to a very important game this week. It’s the Varsity match, which has taken place every year since 1981 and which will be played, in 2021, on Friday.

A major factor in it going ahead is the hard work of Elliott Stockdale in particular.

Elliott is the President of the Cambridge University RL and has a strong Rugby League background, given that he’s not only a product of the renowned Barrow & District club Dalton but also skippers the England Community Lions Under 19s side.

I understand that he has been a real driving force in ensuring that Cambridge take on Oxford as usual, and the match will be played at Cambridge this Friday.

Normally, in such circumstances, I’d be writing something along the lines of “get there if you can”, but not this year of course, given that none of us should be trying to persuade spectators to attend games. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of interest in the match, though.

The roll of honour makes fascinating reading. You’d think Oxford and Cambridge would be very much on a par and statistically, over the last 41 years, they are, more or less, with Cambridge prevailing on 17 occasions and Oxford on 22, with one match (in 1994) drawn.

The sequence isn’t one of tit-for-tat, however. Cambridge had the better of exchanges in the 20th century, winning for example seven successive games in the 1990s. Oxford, however, have more than redressed the balance in recent years and have, in fact, emerged victorious for each of the last eleven years.

I’m not sure why that’s been so – you’d expect the two universities to offer equal support to their Rugby League teams, and hopefully that will prove to be the case this time.

I won’t be there on Friday, but I’ll certainly be monitoring the match, and we’ll carry a report in next Monday’s issue. The best of luck to both the Light Blues and the Dark Blues.

Meanwhile, away from the pitch and on to Rugby League politics. I’ve written often (too often from my perspective!) in recent weeks about the ongoing spat over the RFL’s scheduled introduction of membership fees for amateur players.

I wrote recently, in fact, that I couldn’t understand how Sandy Lindsay, the chair of the Rugby Football League’s Community Board, and West Hull chairman Terry Everson could differ over whether the RFL is in a financial deficit or not. I’d have thought, as a layman in such matters, that the facts would be in black and white. But there still seems to be a difference of opinion. Lindsay wrote to clubs a couple of weeks ago stating: “We made a small surplus last year and we certainly do not have a deficit.”

Everson, however, had a letter published in last Monday’s issue of League Express in which he insisted: “The RFL’s financial accounts for the year ended 31 December 2019 clearly show on the balance sheet a very substantial accumulated deficit of £3,243,009. I have not yet been able to obtain the accounts for the year ended 31 December 2020, but do not anticipate that there will have been much improvement, if any.”

So far, Sandy Lindsay does not appear to have responded. But this seems to be getting serious. Everson, after all, is an accountant by profession, so he certainly knows what he is talking about.

Lindsay, on the other hand, is also not without status. I’m not sure what her background in Rugby League is (with that in mind I Googled her a few weeks ago and she has an interesting and impressive CV. Google tells us that she “launched Tangerine in 2002, which is now one of the UK’s leading integrated communications consultancies. The first PR company outside London to be named Outstanding PR Consultancy of the Year in the CIPR’s national Excellence awards, Tangerine employs 60+ people and supports market leading brands including Pizza Hut, M&S Bank, Jewson and Ideal Standard. In 2015, Sandy was honoured in the Queen’s birthday list for services to business and young people and the same year also saw her named North West Director of the Year (SME) and Highly Commended in the same award, nationally, by the Institute of Directors.”

That’s noteworthy, for sure. It seems to me that, unless both are correct in their interpretations of the RFL’s balance sheet, (and I do appreciate that figures can be read in different ways, although surely not in terms of year-end accounts) either Terry Everson or Sandy Lindsay will end up with a great dollop of egg on their face, which I find sad. Time will tell…

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