Talking Grassroots: A Vine example of progress

Talking Grassroots with Phil Hodgson of League Express

Last week’s news that the 2021 World Cups, at men’s, women’s and wheelchair levels, have been put back a year was hardly a surprise.

RLWC chief executive Jon Dutton and his estimable colleagues really were between a rock and a hard place, but from their personal perspectives it has to be said that they really are beyond criticism and have dealt with a very difficult situation following the withdrawals of Australia and New Zealand as best they could.

A saving grace of a memorable saga is that the actions of the Kangaroos and the Kiwis has helped generate huge publicity for the competitions, which had already benefited from the involvement of Prince Harry, who at the time was Patron of the Rugby Football League, in the draws.

Very few sentient citizens in this country, and maybe across the rest of the planet, can now be unaware that there’s a World Cup taking place next year. You couldn’t buy that kind of publicity, it’s a heck of a silver lining.

Another plus, at least as far as the Wheelchair game is concerned, is that tentative plans are being mooted for Test matches to take place this autumn, to give the players who have been preparing for the World Cup an immediate reward for all their efforts. And given that there will be a World Cup in 2022 (let’s hope there will be no further unpleasant surprises) it could be argued that players will ultimately actually benefit, although it may be that some may miss out next year as age, or perhaps loss of form, catches up on them. That’s one of the really sad aspects, for me, of this saga.

The plusses, though, remain firmly in place, a fact of which I was reminded last Wednesday when I was privileged to be invited to that wonderful St Helens outfit, Portico Vine, who were performing a ceremonial `dig’, with the legendary Keiron Cunningham, who came through their junior ranks, having first use of the spade ahead of work starting on their new clubhouse.

That work is being funded by many sources, not least club members, together with Sport England, Merseyside Police, St Helens Council and sponsors Virador Credits and Ravenair. Half of the total required of almost £600,000 has come from the World Cup’s CreatedBy fund, which readers of this column will know has already pumped a huge sum into grassroots Rugby League. Seeing the happy faces of the players, coaches and volunteers at Portico reminded me, tangibly, of the excellent work being done by the RLWC2021 team, regardless of organisational difficulties outside their control being placed upon the competition itself.

The Wheelchair Rugby League’s 2021 domestic campaign, meanwhile, is coming to a climax and many of England’s players will be on view on Sunday at Sheffield, when Argonauts Skeleton Army and Leeds Rhinos go head-to-head in the Challenge Cup Final. Get there if you can for the lunch-time kick-off, a fantastic match is in prospect.

A grand alternative, meanwhile, is the first Physical Disability Rugby League game between Lancashire and Yorkshire, across the Pennines at Victory Park, Warrington. The match, which kicks off at 4.30pm, will be preceded by other `inclusive’ games, while I understand that similar events are taking place this weekend in Hull and Wakefield.

Less happily, the Scotland Rugby League’s Challenge Cup Final has been shelved. Scotland Operations Director Ollie Cruickshank said, last week, “Unfortunately the match won’t be going head this year as Strathmore have withdrawn from their final league match, and the Scottish Cup Final, as they are playing in union pre-season friendlies.”

Cruickshank and his hard-working colleagues seem to have taken it on the chin, and all credit to them for that. It is, however, a recurring theme of Rugby League outside the traditional heartlands that lads who play our sport during the summer months seem, too often, to view it as little more than a diversion, and fail to fulfil their obligations once the rugby union season starts (or, in this case, as soon as friendlies begin).

It’s their choice, but it’s very disappointing. Rugby League will struggle to fully expand until we get to a point where players see appearances in our finals as a priority, rather than secondary to 15-a-side matches.

In stark contrast, there may be people – including children – whose lives pretty much revolve around Rugby League whose future involvement could be negatively affected by the impact of the RFL’s planned Membership Scheme.

The RFL stressed, in its message to clubs last Friday, that every effort will be made to support those who cannot afford to pay the fees. That’s good to know, and I’ve no doubt at all that the sentiments are genuine. I wonder, though, whether it’s quite as simple as that. It’s all very well helping people who are struggling, but some may be unwilling to flag up the fact that they need assistance.

There were instances, from my own involvement in running a club, when lads didn’t show, and I suspected that the reason was that they were strapped for cash and couldn’t afford the subs or – and this is also important – a pint afterwards. Simple pride meant that they stayed away, I reckoned.

Similarly some parents – the kind who don’t opt for free school dinners for their children, even though they qualify – may simply keep their children away.

I hear from time to time of people at clubs who, having picked up on the fact that a family might be struggling, quietly dip into their pockets and pay for subs or whatever. Formalising that process could be a mistake although, subject to how the membership scheme is set up, perhaps it could remain informal; hopefully that could be the case. And hopefully the RFL – in another issue to emerge from last week’s Club Webinar – can build trust with the grassroots, as many clubs still feel that they weren’t consulted over the issue. In fact the exact nature of discussions held with such as the Yorkshire Men’s League does seem to be a tad murky.

Finally, the announcement by the National Conference League that teams that have not yet met this season can play `four-pointers’ is interesting, not for that reason as such but because each half will be played for two points.

It brings a new meaning to the phrase “a game of two halves” and reminds me of a match I was involved with, as a secretary, a few years ago.

Our coach – a player, who wanted to try his hand in the dugout – was a top lad, but he struggled to deal with our feeble showing in the first half. We trailed by 30-odd points at the break, and the lad simply leaned on the perimeter fence, 50 yards away, looking down forlornly at the grass.

I’ve never coached (which is probably the reason for the teams with which I’ve been involved enjoying some success) but I had to step forward. I couldn’t offer any sensible technical advice, so I simply said to our lads: “If each and every one of you goes out for the second half and gets the better of your opposite number, or at least contains him, you’ll be able to come off the pitch with your heads held high.”

We actually `won’ the second half, something like 14-4 I think. It may have had something to do with our opponents slackening off, I don’t know, but it was a good feeling, in the circumstances, at full time. And if points had been at stake, as with the NCL’s innovation, wed also have come away with something tangible – although the opposition might not have eased up (if indeed they actually had done).

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