Talking Grassroots: A game of two halves

Talking Grassroots Rugby League with Phil Hodgson of League Express

A little bit of history was made at Thanet Road, York, on Friday evening.

York Acorn hosted Skirlaugh that night in a National Conference League ‘League G’ fixture – and although the visitors won the game 28-27, the spoils were shared.

Why? Because this was the first match, since the NCL’s recent edict, to be played as a four-pointer.

The idea, given that the 2021 campaign is heading to a close but a number of teams have yet to play each other, is that – subject to agreement over venue and finance – sides facing each other pick up a couple of league points for whichever one ‘wins’ each half.

As readers will see on our NCL round-up page, and in our scoreboard, Skirlaugh were ahead 18-7 after the first 40 minutes, but Acorn, in battling back to 28-27 at the close, ‘won’ the second period 20-10.

So it’s two points apiece for the contestants and, I’d expect, a funny feeling in both dressing rooms afterwards, especially as the dramatic finale actually meant nothing in terms of direct reward.

I’m not sure how many more games will be contested on this basis over the next few weeks, but it certainly adds extra interest, even if it seems to cause some confusion administratively. And it definitely contributes to a certain dream-like spell we’re in just now at the grass roots.

There used to be a popular programme on the telly in the 1960s called The Avengers (showing my age here…) and a recurring theme seemed to be that the heroes, John Steed and Emma Peel, would somehow find themselves wandering around a deserted army or RAF base, with no one around but, spookily, odd signs of activity cropping up every now and then, such as a chair rocking in what had seemed to be an empty room.

Summer Rugby League is a bit like that, certainly at youth and junior level but also in some of the regional open age leagues.

Hardly any games take place during the school summer holidays (or, with some leagues, during any other bank holiday breaks) although West Cumbria Youth admittedly breaks the trend to a degree.

I wondered, when the youth and junior game switched to summer, how much rugby youngsters would actually play and that thought is again at the front of my mind, although we are admittedly in a strange post-lockdown (I hope) period.

What effect such limited experience – a paucity, even – of Rugby League has on players’ development I can only imagine. Hopefully it’s not negative (in fact it’s possibly even a positive).

Maybe this horse has long bolted, but I still believe that ‘winter’ (ie August-to-May) Rugby League is far more preferable to ‘summer’ (ie March to October). For one thing there’s more chance of players being available, in my opinion.

There are still a number of such competitions around, of course, including all student, college and schools Rugby League.

The Women’s Rugby League Association has stuck with ‘winter’ (more on their pending season soon, I hope) while the Pennine League has abided with its traditional slot. On that basis, secretary Sue Taylor is continuing to invite expressions of interest for 2021-22, which should be starting up in the next few weeks. I hope she’s inundated.

I also hope that Pennine, and other ‘winter’ competitions, will be given the nod to reintroduce scrums. It was understandable that, last Friday, the Rugby Football League announced that scrummaging will not be brought back this year. My understanding of their statement was that they had ‘summer’ competitions in mind as they rightly stressed that the integrity of the closing stages of those leagues could be compromised by introducing key rule changes at such a late stage. But winter competitions may be a different matter. Government guidelines allowing, of course, I hope that turns out to be the case. And I also hope that proper, contested scrums are brought back sooner rather than later (with only two substitutes allowed, to dissuade coaches from packing their benches with props). Those two innovations would, at a stroke, solve a couple of our more serious on-field problems, I believe.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to establish the identity of a certain individual who I played against sometime during the 1970s when I was fullback for the south Leeds amateur side Middleton Arms.

No names, no packdrill at this stage but he might be well-advised, if he recognises himself from the following tale, to get in touch with his legal people, as he could well be hearing from mine any time soon.

The issue centres on an incident in a Yorkshire League game which has prayed on my mind for decades now, and which has become a bit much for me to handle in recent years.

I wasn’t, I have to admit, the world’s finest fullback under the bomb (or ‘up and under’ as it used to be described back then, in a term which I think was used first by the BBC TV commentator Eddie Waring). In fact I often struggled, but somehow or other I usually survived, admittedly after a bit of panic.

The ‘bomb’ one I’m thinking of right now wasn’t even one of the biggest, maybe more of a high chip in my direction, which I should have pouched safely on my own goal-line.

My team-mates certainly seemed to see it that way. Or that’s what they implied in what seemed to me at the time to be unreasonably intemperate language after I’d fluffed it and the opposition had scored.

I had no excuses, and I took the rap. But in recent years I’ve had a rethink, and the bloke who booted the ball towards me has come increasingly into my thoughts.

What, I’ve come to realise more and more, was he thinking about, putting me under that kind of pressure? Did he consider, at all, the potential consequences to my self-esteem and future well-being?

Apparently not. All he was bothered about, it seems, was trying to create a scoring opportunity for his side – and one which, moreover, if successful was almost certain to cause me some anguish.

He might have thought that was ok. In fact, that’s how I saw it, close on half a century ago, and so did everyone else. But we know better now, don’t we, and I think it’s time the chap in question faced the consequences of his selfish and socially unacceptable action and accepted responsibility for his crass and, frankly, cavalier behaviour that day on the Nutty Slack, Middleton.

I hope, too, that he is well-funded (or, if not, well-insured) because I reckon that, in these so much more enlightened times, I could take him to the cleaners for all the suffering I’ve since endured.

My only worry is that, having described my opponent a trifle casually as ‘he’ throughout this offering, I could be subjected to a counter-claim if that description turns out to be not entirely accurate, at least in his/her mind. In which case we may have to settle out of court on a quid pro quo basis…

Finally, my commiserations go to Wigan St Judes secretary Joe Fitzsimmons and his family, and to the family of Eddie Gallagher.

A minute’s silence was held prior to Thursday’s NCL fixture between Wigan St Patricks and Judes in memory of Eddie Gallagher, who played and coached at Pats, and Joe’s wife Joan, both of whom sadly passed away recently. They will be sadly missed.

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