Talking Grass Roots: Best kept secrets

It’s been a long time a-coming, Lord only knows, but competitive amateur Rugby League at Open Age level is at last on the very near horizon.

There’s been a few friendlies quietly taking place in the last couple of weeks of course but, at last, readers of League Express will be able to reflect, in next Monday’s issue, on serious league clashes.

Unfortunately, albeit totally understandably, I’m unable to fully preview those matches in this week’s League Express. The Rugby Football League is, quite properly in all the circumstances, opting not to announce forthcoming games as it would be quite wrong to promote, in any way, fixtures that are likely to attract spectators in significant numbers.

This is an aspect I touched on recently. Rugby League at amateur level is probably the most popular spectator team sport of all and it’s already hugely apparent that many fans are extremely hungry to take in some action. They’ll be very tempted to show up to games and the RFL is quite right to remind clubs not to publicise their fixtures, most of which will be taking place on public land, as there’s very little anyone can do about sending folk away if too many congregate on the touchline.

Hopefully the situation will, as the RFL anticipates, have eased in the next fortnight but right now I’m abiding by the RFL’s request not to announce who is playing this weekend, even if our governing body recently inadvertently let slip opening games in the Southern Conference League this Saturday. If you spotted them in last week’s issue, please be resilient and don’t attend. We’ll soon, hopefully, have emerged from the wretched Covid-19 crisis and be back to the old, rather than the new, normal.

I’m sure the people who count most – the players – will enjoy themselves at the weekend, when matches will be taking place in the Southern Conference, Hull Youth, North West Youth and Yorkshire Junior Leagues (that broad brush information is all you’re going to get from me, I’m afraid). What I will say – and I’m craving readers’ indulgence here – is that many thoughts could turn, as kick-offs arrive, to the club I’ve supported since I was a boy, namely Hunslet.

Why should Hunslet come to players’ minds? Well, for quite a lot of reasons, in truth.

Post protectors will have been erected in the build-up to each and every match – would such a concept exist if not for Hunslet? Well, probably they would, but possibly not. The Parksiders were the very first club to pad their posts, back in the late 1930s. The thought occurs that if Hunslet had patented the idea they would probably be by far the richest Rugby League club on the planet.

I’ve heard that Hunslet were also the first Rugby League club to use moveable corner flags, although that’s less certain, but they were definitely the first to introduce a club song with “We’ve Swept the Seas Before Boys”, following the Yorkshire rugby union Cup Final stroll over Leeds in 1892. So when players sing their own club songs before or after matches this weekend, ponder on Hunslet a little.

Less beneficial (to my mind anyway) was the introduction of a coach. Hunslet once more broke new ground just after World War Two with the appointment of former captain Jack Walkington to an innovative role. It seemed, indeed it was, a good idea at the time, especially as Walkington introduced a weights room. As the decades have passed, however, I’m not so sure. I suspect many readers will agree with me about that, given that we’re in an era in which teams tend to be over-coached, with the men in the dugout all too often adopting regulated, percentage-based strategies. I pine for the days when players were allowed to play what they saw, without fear of recrimination.

Much better, regarding another Hunslet innovation (almost) is the racial diversity of a team. Hunslet were famously the first professional club to field a black man in the American Lucius Banks, back in 1912, although amateurs Pendlebury of Manchester certainly beat them to it almost a decade earlier. I wonder if anyone can help reveal the identity of that man.

Finally, a key aspect of all sports is the desire to win. There’s more value to team sport than victories alone of course, but that target is certainly on everyone’s minds as kick-off time approaches. All clubs will be seeking silverware as the 2021 campaign hovers nearer and they can have no better example of how to do that than Hunslet who, back in 1907-08 under captain Albert Goldthorpe, and with the great pack known as the Terrible Six spearheading operations, were the first club to pull of the clean sweep of All Four Cups (the Championship, the Challenge Cup, the Yorkshire League and the Yorkshire Cup). Yes, I’m sure Hunslet should be on the minds of plenty of amateur Rugby League folk at the weekend; which is, in my opinion anyway, a happier thought than the ongoing spat between the RFL and many at the grassroots over the former’s plan to introduce membership fees. It’s an issue which is likely to run and run, I reckon. Let’s hope it can be resolved amicably.

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