Talking Grass Roots: Return to action prompts pause for thought

The Rugby Football League’s ‘Return to Action’ plan got off to a flying start on the weekend of 17/18 October when something like 200 youth and junior games at Under 11s and younger took place around England, from the higher points of the north east and Cumbria through to London.

That seems to me to be a very healthy figure as the amateur game seeks to resume, as best it can, in the teeth of the hurricane that is the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m writing these notes prior to games that took place during the weekend just gone, but I’d imagine that a similar number of friendly fixtures, this time from Under 12s to Under 18s, will have been completed. And, hopefully, the trend will continue this coming weekend, when Open Age pilot games are also scheduled.

As was the case in last week’s issue, I’m writing ‘blind’ on fixtures as the RFL is, quite rightly in my view, declining to release fixtures on the basis – flagged up, I think, by clubs themselves – that more people than is desirable, given social distancing requirements, could turn up to watch.

There was a hint of that aspect being a potential issue in the congratulatory email sent to secretaries in the middle of last week by the RFL’s Head of Delivery (Community Game Competitions) Kelly Barrett in which, while justifiably heaping praise on all involved for their pro-active approach, she reminded everyone of social distancing requirements, and that only one parent can be at pitch-side.

The RFL hasn’t quite spelled this out, but I’ve little doubt that if people in Rugby League – or in any other sport for that matter – are found to be transgressing stipulations set down by the government, the plug could very well be pulled on remaining games, with potentially serious consequences for the grassroots game and, by extension, for the professional arena, which is of course heavily reliant on the amateur production line.

Barrett is clearly, in advising clubs where they can travel to, and for what reasons, merely passing on government advice. Some of that does seem to be contradictory, though – for example Sport England has, she reveals, stated that “travel restrictions do not apply for organised physical activity for Under 18s and below” but, a little later Barrett states: “People are advised not to travel into or out of Tier 3 areas that have a very high alert level, including for sport”, while team sport appears, from the following phrase, to be barred. So, to me anyway, government advice to our sport is confusing (on which note Rugby League is perhaps no different from the rest of society).

Amateur clubs should be able to survive, given the financial support that’s available from so many quarters, whether those be via central and local government, Sport England (which announced another package for grassroots sport last week, this time for £16.5 million) or elsewhere.

But I have to admit to being given pause for thought by National Conference League chairman Trevor Hunt’s reply to my question as to whether new applications are being invited for 2021.

I was going through the motions, really, in putting the query, which I tend to do at this time of each and every year. I didn’t think for a minute that any new clubs would be invited (or would be interested) given the Covid-19 crisis, but it’s not for journalists to supply answers to their own questions – that’s for those who actually make decisions.

Trevor Hunt’s reply was more circumspect than I’d anticipated. The NCL’s long-serving official, who has seen much in his many decades of involvement, is plainly more concerned about clubs surviving the pandemic than on his being able to add new teams to his competition. Let’s hope he is getting more worried than he need be. There are many very committed people involved at the grassroots (none more than Trevor Hunt, incidentally) as illustrated by the way youth and junior games went ahead at the weekend through teams stepping in at short notice for those sides compelled to withdraw from fixtures through players going down with Covid-19 symptoms. With that kind of attitude prevalent (the RFL’s resumption of coach education courses is another exhilarating example) amateur Rugby League will surely pull through.

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