Talking Grass Roots: Petty politics reflect poorly

There has been a lot of focus over the last two or three weeks on cup draws.

In these instances, however, the attention hasn’t so much been on who has been paired with whom, but on who has not been included.

Plenty has been said already about the unfortunate decision to exclude several leading amateur sides from the 2014 Tetley’s Challenge Cup. Sharlston Rovers, especially, have every right to be miffed, having snaffled five trophies in 2012-13, and it’s certainly coming to something when the holders of the Ace Insurance (Europe) BARLA National Cup, the Hamuel Reichenbacher BARLA Yorkshire Cup and the Pennine League’s Championship and President’s Cup – not to mention the Wakefield ARL’s Brian McDermott City Plasterer’s Cup – are frozen out of the game’s oldest knock-out trophy.

I reflected on this sorry saga at some length before Christmas, since when it’s become increasingly clear that the stated reason for the RFL excluding some teams – that their respective leagues haven’t yet embraced the Operational Rules drafted by Red Hall chiefs – doesn’t entirely stack up.

The deadline for reaching agreement on those rules is September 2014, so to sideline Sharlston for that reason is, to my mind, tantamount to one engaged partner throwing the other out of their joint home, without the excuse of any indiscretion, prior to the wedding day.

Sharlston, the jilted bride, may have had their heads turned in the past by blandishments such as the Challenge Cup. They now know, however, exactly where the land lies, as do all other amateur teams throughout the land: go along with what the RFL decrees, regardless of the rights or wrongs or any agreed timescales, or run the risk of paying the price. Indeed, it goes further than that; on this evidence such clubs must closely monitor the actions of their leagues, or of BARLA, or they will be punished. It’s an echo of the dreadful practice in countries such as North Korea.

OK, that’s stretching an analogy much too far. Neither the RFL or BARLA can sensibly be compared to the brutal regime of Kim Jong Un, but in purely sporting terms the comparison is real; especially when I hear that another league that may not yet have accepted the Operational Rules – the Cumbria Men’s summer-based Amateur League – has a representative in the Challenge Cup in the shape of champions Walney Central.

It makes you wonder whether this issue is really about punishing those teams that have not switched to summer although, to be fair, Student sides Leeds Met and Loughborough are included in the Challenge Cup, despite obviously being winter-based.

I’ve been covering the wranglings between the Rugby Football League and the British Amateur Association for very nearly 20 years now and I have to say that the act of excluding Sharlston Rovers and others from the Challenge Cup is the most overtly political I have experienced in that time, all the more so for blame being passed to BARLA and the relevant leagues.

The usual pattern in my experience over that time is that the RFL has generally been the instigator of any bother, with BARLA in truth all too often more than ready to retaliate and the RFL’s more sophisticated political approach enabling Red Hall to assume the mantle of the innocent party.

This time, the RFL has appeared petulant at best and unpleasant at worst for excluding Sharlston, and it could take them some time to recover from what is in truth a self-inflicted blow.

Meanwhile, BARLA was also reeling last week over the mess made of the Xamax National Cup draws at under 18s, under 16s and under 14s.

Three teams were omitted from the oldest age group, and one from each of the younger sections, which is plainly unsatisfactory.
It seems, according to BARLA, that the fault lies with the leagues for which the respective teams play.

Whoever is at fault, the saving grace is that all who want to take part in the National Cups have now been included. It doesn’t, however, look too good, for all that, and those who just want to play for – or coach or administer – teams at the grassroots might be wondering just what’s been going on lately at the higher levels of the sport.

Meanwhile on an entirely happier level I understand from the RFL’s Director of Participation, David Gent, that plans are in hand to build on the huge success of England in last year’s Women’s World Cup.
It’s still at the planning stage under the astute stewardship of Pat Crawshaw, who I am told has revealed some details to Rugby League World magazine which will be published this Friday.

Finally, a call to the many grassroots activists who have my details stored in their mobiles. I stupidly lost my own last week, and with it my contact lists. I’d be grateful if anyone reading this could text me on 07786 980 909, simply stating their name.

By Phil Hodgson