Professional Rugby League players rarely forget their roots and on any given weekend you’ll find plenty of them involved in developing the next generation to follow in their footsteps in the community game.
Words: Ash Hope
Rugby League players are highly regarded for many things but, above all else, it’s their benevolence that is often their most admired trait. Very rarely do we see even the elite players in the UK forget their humble beginnings in the amateur game. Try-lines that are broken by growing weeds. The parent running the line, as they make do with a frantic chat with the referee beforehand as a substitute for a rulebook.
There are plenty of other anecdotes of a similar nature, which remain relevant down every junction of the M62, all of which are delicately stitched into the memory of every professional in the sport. And that’s why they often give back. Why they often return to the grassroots to plant the seeds for success on the very fields that grew their careers, and with much success. Leading that payback are a raft of Super League stars who have gone one further, as head coaches in the amateur game, alongside their current contracts in the top division.
Castleford Tigers’ Paul McShane led Hunslet Club Parkside to the NCL Premier Division Grand Final last season, in a perfect season, and played in the Yorkshire Cup earlier this year. Leeds Rhinos’ Ashton Golding, along with Bradford Bulls’ Jordan Lilley, spearheaded a double promotion at their former side Stanningley, while Hull FC’s Jake Connor recently steered Ovenden to the Pennine League Championship title. Connor’s Hull and England teammate Scott Taylor, meanwhile, oversaw an NCL Division 3 title win at Beverley in 2018. The rewards, for the amateur game, are there for all to see.
“I love coaching Beverley,” Taylor told Rugby League World. “I don’t think it’s a responsibility for us all to coach in the amateur game, at all. “Some lads don’t see themselves as coaches, some do. For me personally, I love Rugby League, and the reason I got into coaching Beverley four years ago was because I was coming back home and I wanted to make Rugby League fun again, in certain areas. “It gets pretty serious at the top level, it can take you away from professional Rugby League very effectively but still keep you in the game. I think the more professional players involved is only good for it, there’s a lot of amateur clubs who are slipping down.”
One person that can vouch for that is Taylor’s mentor at Hull FC, head coach Lee Radford, who began his life as a coach in a similar guise. Having begun coaching East Hull U8s when he was 22, Radford stepped up to the plate to become coach of the Open Age side, leading them to two NCL Premier Division titles after taking over while they were in the NCL Division 3, as well as winning three Yorkshire Cups. From his group of youngsters, Canberra Raiders’ Josh Hodgson found a pathway to the top of the game, as have others and so too Radford himself, climbing the ranks in Hull FC’s staff from U20s coach to two-time Challenge Cup winning head coach. “What a job he did there, and he got some mates for life from that,” Taylor said. “He really learned his coaching early on, I can see similarities and all credit to him for doing that.
“Do I want to be a professional head coach? I don’t know, there’s a long time to go yet, but this might just help me do that in the future. “You can never start planning your life after the game too early, this is a great way to potentially plan my life within the game.” And Radford, like Taylor, has not forgotten where that journey began, having pulled on the shirt to play for Beverley to play a game against Doncaster Toll Bar, after a bet with the Hull vice-captain before their Challenge Cup final against Warrington in 2016. “You can see the grassroots coach coming out of him a lot, at times, he’s constantly racking his brain and every morning he has a new idea, like you have to when perhaps in the amateur game you have very few people involved in the club,” Taylor added.
“Over the last few years, he’s made all the players go down to secondary schools and teach and give back. I think that was one of the reasons he pulled a Beverley shirt on, a few years ago, and a few of the boys he actually played with, he now selects for Hull FC reserves.” Ultimately that is where the benefit of a person of Taylor, or his professional peers’ stature, lies. They know the professional game, how brutal it can be. The reality, if you will.
But they also know that the road back is not impossible, Taylor only has to look behind him every week to provide anecdotal evidence of that. “Look at Jamie Shaul, he went back to play for Skirlaugh Bulls and was working on a building site until he was 20, then he was re-signed and he’s since won two Challenge Cups,” he added. “I’ve got a few of the ex-City of Hull Academy lads, I’m trying to keep them in Rugby League. Every year, a lot of players fall by the wayside and a lot of people don’t chase them to carry on in the sport. “They still have a chance, at the end of the day, some of them are 16/17. I’ve got one lad who’s getting looked at again for Hull FC U18’s, I just want to keep them ticking over and make sure they don’t give up on making it in the game.”
It’s not all a one-way street though. The amateur game can quite easily work in reverse. At the same time Doncaster’s Rangi Chase revealed he was open to playing for Normanton Knights, after two years away from the game due to a drugs ban, another household name in Super League dipped into the grassroots game, albeit for different reasons. Craig Huby had just mutually terminated his contract at Wakefield Trinity after a four-month lay-off with a shoulder problem. Not knowing what to do, not knowing where to go, keen to stay in the sport, he linked up with Castleford-based Lock Lane as assistant coach.
“I knew quite a few of the lads who were down there, so it made sense for us both really,” the 32-year-old explained. “Coaching wasn’t something I was massively thinking about. “I’ve just fallen into this role and it suits us all. I’m happy to help. I can do it if and when. It’s good to keep me in the game while I work out my next move and while I’m coming back from injury. “The amateur game is offering a platform for people to further themselves in the game and, first and foremost, you’re just having a laugh. “I can’t think what I’d be doing otherwise, I think the injury could have had a worse effect than it has done, if it weren’t for Lock Lane.”
Huby has been given a renewed vigour from his time with the club, as he looks to return to the professional game as soon as possible. Lock Lane is the latest chapter in a life that has become well-established for the Huby household in West Yorkshire, but the next one could be a fresh career start. “I’m definitely still wanting to play, but at the moment I’m just concentrating on my rehab and getting my shoulder right,” he added. “The surgeon told me it will be next season when I’ll be back playing now. “That was the reason I ended up leaving Wakefield, and hopefully in the next few weeks I should get some good news and we’ll see what happens from there.
“I’m open to everything. I’ve spent a lot of time in Rugby League and, at this stage, I’ve got to think about my family. I’ve had 16 years at the top of the game, for Castleford, Huddersfield and Wakefield and I’ve lived in the same house. “Part of me wishes that I had moved a little bit, but I didn’t want to uproot the kids at the time. I’m interested in going over to France now, going over and playing in their local league and experiencing another culture. I think the time might be right for the kids.”
Either way, Huby, like many before him, has reinvigorated his passion for the game where it all began. In the heart of the grassroots game. It’s not the closed door we’d all like to think it is, the bridge between the professional game and the NCL, the door is open for anyone at the top of the game to give back, just as the revolving door of the Super League Academy system is finding its way back around.
First published: Rugby League World (Issue 461|September 2019)