Talking Grassroots: A Grand Finale of contrasting emotions

Talking Grassroots with Phil Hodgson of League Express

One moment will, I think, spring to my mind when I hark back in future years to Saturday’s hugely successful National Conference League finals day at Featherstone Rovers.

It was at the end of the afternoon, during the presentation of the Knockout Cup to East Leeds, who had prevailed over Clock Face Miners in a cracking match.

The Cup was, you might say, the least important of the three games, but it clearly meant a great deal to not only Easts’ players, but to the Miners lads. I was on the pitch, waiting to interview the victorious coach Rob ‘Two Bobs’ Roberts, who very rightly wanted to feature in the celebration photo and the mood was justifiably joyous, with former Easts player Josh Jordan-Roberts (Two Bobs’ son), a local lad who is now at Hunslet RLFC, tellingly keen to join in.

As the men from Easy Road, led by the superb man of the match Nathan Conroy, celebrated, the Clock Face team, who had applauded the winners in a very sporting manner, trooped past me, very clearly in low spirits after their huge effort had been thwarted.

There had been similar scenes following the Grand Final, in which Thatto Heath came out on top against Wath Brow, and after the Shield game (the competition was created for those sides knocked out in the first round of the Championship) when West Hull accounted for Kells.

Those moments illustrate, for me, why the NCL’s Management Committee should be applauded for imaginatively creating regional leagues in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, with knockout competitions rounding the season off.

I doubt whether the exercise will be repeated – the NCL is already planning to revert to divisions in 2022 – but 2021 will, I’m sure, be fondly remembered by many, including most of the very healthy crowd of not far off 3,000.

Cumbrians in the stands and on the terraces might demur at that. It was a pity that the result in the Grand Final rested, to some degree at least, on a controversial try but, as head coach of runners-up Wath Brow Ian Rooney stressed, champions Thatto Heath are a terrific side. And the Crusaders did well to hold out with only twelve men for a crucial spell in the second half when hugely impressive defence earned its reward. And, for Hornets (who will surely be back), a try by Daniel Burns following a glorious break by Fran King was surely the best moment of the entire afternoon.

Kells, meanwhile, didn’t quite get going against magnificent West Hull, for whom the left-edge combination of Elliott Jones, Benn Arbon, Jack Lazenby, Jack Watts and Jack Ridsdill really caught my eye. But the experience will serve their young side well and I suspect that they, too, will be back – as will 17-year-old referee Freddie Lincoln, who was very assured and impressive.

A highlight of the day was the presentations made during the Grand Final interval of awards which are usually made at the NCL’s annual dinner, which I don’t think will be happening this year because of lingering concerns over the dangers of Covid-19.

Craig McShane of Hunslet Club Parkside took the Player of the Year award, and the recognition is fully deserved for a fine fullback who lifted the Premier Division prize two or three years ago.

McShane, I understand, just edged Wigan St Judes’ Gary McMahon, while Ryan Hunkin of West Bowling took the Coach of the Year accolade, the Bradford outfit having won all its fixtures in League F.

Katrina Daw of Normanton Knights was a popular recipient of the Secretary of the Year award, now named after the late Alfrieda Kindon in a very nice touch by NCL bosses, her unstinting efforts in difficult circumstances epitomising the hard work and continuing efficiency of club administrators throughout the flagship league.

It was a sign of the times, perhaps, that the day before the finals the Conference management felt it necessary to remind all clubs of the need for best behaviour, and of respect for opponents and match officials. It’s sadly ironic that the missive was issued on the very day that the MP Sir David Amess was so tragically murdered, which is on a whole other level of course, with altogether different underlying causes. From a wider perspective, though, it does seem to me that simply treating everyone you come across with common courtesy is a good starting point for us all being able to enjoy a better world.

At the same time as the NCL was spelling out the need for best behaviour at its finals – which it got, I think – the RFL invited clubs to a meeting early next month to address similar issues involving the conduct of folk on touchlines.

Perhaps a suggestion made to me by former BARLA Vice-Chairman Jack Strother, in relation to the stand-off between the Yorkshire Junior League and the Huddersfield Referees’ Society, which is refusing at the moment to send young officials to YJL games, might be discussed. “A simple solution would be to give the referees the right of appeal to what could be deemed to be unjustified sentences,” said Jack. Hmmm – food for thought, there.

Talking of stand-offs, and the RFL’s plans to introduce membership fees for amateur players next year is still causing ruffles, with the North West Youth League questioning whether the issue was, in fact, “extensively discussed” (although I have to state that the RFL strongly disagrees with that assertion). North West Youth also seem to think that the RFL is attempting to sneak the Membership Scheme through under Our League Active (“their code” said U13s-U15s chair  Kevin Davidson) and a meeting has been called of clubs to thrash out exactly how NWY members feel about the issue.

I imagine all this will be discussed by players, coaches and administrators of yesteryear when the Leeds & District League holds a reunion on Friday at the Irish Centre on York Road. Old-timers will definitely be discussing rule changes invoked since their day and my own two-pennorth will be the need to revert to just two substitutes as a way of limiting the impact of Big Misters to the detriment of halfbacks, together with my hope that contested scrimmages (never mind the apologies we’ve had for scrums in recent years) will be brought back.

Fat chance on the latter notion, I think, but if you don’t ask you don’t get.

At least the RFL has confirmed that scrums, such as they are, will be brought back in 2022. I’ve asked winter-based competitions such as the Pennine League, the Student Rugby League and the Women’s League how they will approach this, given that the rule change will be invoked halfway through their seasons. All are mulling the matter over and taking advice, with the options as I see it being a) to allow scrums (and the tweaking on ball-stealing) straight away, which I imagine cannot be done, b) to bring the changes in on New Year’s Day or c) wait until the 2022-23 season to introduce them.

The confusion is caused by the fact that we now have summer and winter seasons. For my money I’d ditch the summer notion, but I reckon that horse has bolted as many players have never known anything different. Although I do wonder whether global warming, if it continues, could make our minds up for us. In which case Rugby League could be the last thing on our minds anyway.

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