Talking Grass Roots: What’s the state of play?

How are amateur Rugby League clubs faring as the coronavirus lockdown at the grass roots approaches (if we ignore a few ‘pilot’ games last autumn) the twelve-months mark?

It seemed timely, given that we are nearly out of January, to seek to establish the general feeling. So with that in mind I emailed National Conference League clubs early last Thursday morning for feedback.

I didn’t, in fairness, ask directly whether any NCL outfits are struggling. What I said in my email was: “How are things for your club, please? Hopefully you’re navigating these troubled waters fairly successfully. Also, do you have any news regarding your club or any members which you’d like publicising in League Express? I’d be delighted to report on positive news especially!”

Several came back with uplifting news stories. Only a couple (Beverley and Heworth) touched on the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on their clubs – and both of those simply said, in effect, that they are ‘dormant’, with no cash coming in but, equally, with nothing to pay out.

So I was taken by surprise a little when, late on Friday afternoon, I was pointed towards a posting on the BBC Sport website in which the estimable Dave Woods carried an interview with Thatto Heath Crusaders’ Mike Denning in which the St Helens outfit’s hard-working and experienced chairman expressed his fears for the sport at the grass roots if the pandemic continues.

Not that I disagree with anything Denning, who largely and broadly reiterated concerns made a few months ago by Thornhill Trojans, said; particularly with regard to the potential and actual impact on players’ physical and mental well-being.

His view, though, does seem to differ from those who seem to see the situation, unwelcome as it is, as one of ‘hibernation’ more than anything, certainly in financial terms.

I’d be interested to know more about how clubs – and not only those in the NCL – feel.

My understanding is that most amateur outfits have been able to secure funding from various sources, such as Sport England, local councils, central government and BARLA, to meet a variety of ongoing costs, including rates, utility bills and wages.

How long that will last remains to be seen, although the Rugby Football League has certainly spelled out to the government what an important role many clubs play in their local communities, some of which are described as deprived.

Denning, in fact, made exactly that point in his interview with Woods who, in the second part of his article, highlighted concerns – expressed cogently by Salford’s Kevin Brown – over the mental health issues and even depression being suffered by inactive junior players.

That’s perhaps the bigger worry, although the RFL is certainly doing its bit to ward off the dangers.

Kelly Barrett, the Head of Delivery, Community Game Competitions, reminded clubs on Friday of the ‘Virtual RL’ online programme, which goes a fair way to keeping young players involved and active. And the initiative by Bradford Dudley Hill’s Elliott Cousins and Neil Wall, details of which feature in this week’s issue of League Express, is also extremely laudable.

Barrett, incidentally, was also able to announce that 11,000 players, together with 1,700 volunteers and 1,500 coaches, have so far signed up for the 2021 campaign, and that 1,152 people have undertaken the obligatory Coach Right course.

Exactly the kind of good news stories I was looking for when I fired out that email last Thursday, on which subject Gateshead Storm are very excited about having joined GiveToLocal’s Focus Clubs project.

I suspect that other clubs may be pricking up their ears.

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