Talking Grass Roots: Rocky’s Giant Impact

There are so many people who give so much to amateur Rugby League – which is a reason I’m confident that the sport will survive, despite the ongoing impact of Covid-19.

Few if any, however, will have had such a huge impact as Stephen ‘Rocky’ Whitehead, who passed away on Sunday 27 December in Leeds General Infirmary at the age of 73.

I knew Rocky fairly well – in fact I’ve carried one or two interviews with him in League Express over the years – and those readers who also knew the lad will agree, I think, that there was no one else quite like him.

He really was in the vanguard when it came to encouraging the youngest of children to adopt and enjoy Rugby League.

Rocky did that for something like 40 years, at his beloved Oulton Raiders, by making taking part in Rugby League hugely enjoyable. Kids – tots, really – had a great time being part of Rocky’s Giants, and so for that matter did their parents. I doubt that too many had any difficulties in persuading their offspring to get down to training, most if not all really did have a great time under the wing of the diminutive Rocky, a bloke I’ve described from time to time as something of a Pied Piper figure.

It’s remarkable how big moments in life happen by chance. Rocky Whitehead gave the eulogy at the funeral of Oulton chairman Jack Hirst a few years ago, when he told the tale of how, having moved to Leeds form his native Chesterfield, he was hanging around in pubs in Rothwell, not really knowing anyone, when he was befriended by big Jack – who was another sad loss, incidentally.

That chance meeting led to Rocky, who was looking in vain for a soccer club for his young son Chris to join, adopting Rugby League as his sport – to the huge benefit of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people.

Quite a few Super League players had their first taste of the sport through Rocky Whitehead – an experience which will have stood them in good stead – with Leeds Rhinos’ Ash Handley being among those quick to pay tribute.

I’m not going to list any more (partly for space reasons, as it would be too long, and also because someone could be upset at being left out) other than to mention a lad who stayed with the Raiders, that individual being Andy Williamson, who I got to know when I was media manager on the BARLA Great Britain Under 23s tour of Italy back in 2008.

Andy has, like Ash, paid heartfelt tribute to Rocky Whitehead, making an observation that everyone else who came across him will recognise – that he was “crackers”.

“Crackers” in a great way, though. Rocky loved to travel with Oulton to away games in the National Conference League, where he would often take over the post-match presentations with a sing-song, possibly in an Elvis Presley costume.”

There was no one quite like him, and no matter how their careers developed, from representing Great Britain or England through to turning out for ‘A’ teams in the lower regions of amateur leagues, many folk who played under him will be feeling very upset right now.

Rocky Whitehead, whose achievements were recognised in 2012 when he carried the Olympic Torch in Leeds – and when he was hailed as an Unsung Hero at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Awards – gave so much, and in a rare, possibly unique, way.

He is another casualty of the pernicious coronavirus, which he contracted in hospital after being initially admitted at the beginning of December because of a heart attack, from which he had recovered.

Stephen ‘Rocky’ Whitehead will be sadly missed (as will former Leeds referee Bill Crann, news of whose death came through as League Express went to press; I’ve happy memories of playing in games officiated by Bill in the 1970s).

Were either still around they would I’m sure have been among the first to recognise the support given to Devon Sharks, who have had swift backing from the Rugby League community – notably West Wales Raiders and Swinton Lions – after their posts were vandalised. By the time this article appears I’ve no doubt that the £1,500 replacement cost will just about have been raised.

The Sharks need those posts up, of course, to enable matches to be played, although quite when that will be following last Monday’s announcement by the Prime Minister of another national lockdown remains to be seen.

Devon – and the RFL – are hoping for games to resume after Easter, which is set for early April this year. Only time will tell on that one although in the meantime the RFL is being typically pro-active, offering advice on fitness programmes and recommending that coaches and clubs use the time to complete documentation, so everyone can hit the ground running when the ‘green light’ is given

I’d offer another avenue for people – especially players – who have time on their hands right now.

I’m not quite in that category to be honest – other than not having matches to cover, I’m as busy as ever. However, I’ve joined the general trend towards online chess by playing that great game with my children, all of whom have flown the nest.

I’d not played chess for some time, which has been my loss. There’s a reason for it being such an ancient game; it’s a terrific ‘war’ game, really, which can be enjoyed by anyone from beginners to Grand Masters.

What strikes me is how tactical and strategic it is, which is where I think it can be useful as a means of Rugby League players developing those cognitive skills, which I believe could add to their understanding of the sport (and of what their coaches may be getting at in their pre-match and half-time team talks).

Many online chess sites are free, and offer matches with people of a similar standard. Recommended!

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