Talking Grassroots: Army and Navy provide terrific advert for Forces Rugby League

I don’t know how many people joined me in watching the British Army take on the Royal Navy on Saturday on The Sportsman, but I’m sure that every single one of them will have been energised by the clash, not least because the coverage was excellent.

Despite – or perhaps because – neither side was perhaps at its best in the strong winds, we were treated to a real thriller in which the Navy, who were 10-0 down until very late, not only drew level but won in golden point with one of those tries that almost crops up by mistake, outstanding hooker James Tilley opting to go for the line himself when he should really have fed Rhys Joel, who was lined up for a field goal, but finding Joey Sugden on his shoulder when his try-scoring opportunity was closed by the Army’s wonderful defence.

The game, which was a terrific advert for Forces Rugby League, had just about everything, with both sides very physical – as you’d expect – and also skilful, especially in the case of former Super League player Tilley and the Army’s mercurial halfback Dec Baines. For all that it did seem, sometimes, as though the teams were almost trying to lose, as the error count mounted, and there certainly seemed to be something in the air when an on-target field goal attempt by Joel towards the end of normal time was blown back by the wind. Memorable stuff, and I’m sure many folk will now be monitoring the Navy’s progress with keen interest.

Elsewhere there were no real upsets, at least at the time I’m writing these notes, early on Sunday morning, although Rochdale Mayfield’s victory at fellow National Conference League Premiers West Hull was certainly notable.

We’re not too far away from the start of the NCL season, on Saturday 5 March, and I imagine there’ll be a few pre-season friendlies along the way, while some teams still have Challenge Cup commitments of course.

I had an interesting chat with NCL chairman Trevor Hunt last week in which the veteran administrator, who has been involved with the flagship competition since its launch in 1986, outlined a key innovation, while also stressing that the league will be reverting to tried and tested structures in 2022.

On the latter aspect, the NCL moved away from its traditional divisional structure last year, opting for regionalised fare. It had to, given lockdown constraints on travel, and Conference bosses came up with what, in all the circumstances, was a very good formula, with cross-league knockout ties climaxing in a Grand Final in which Thatto Heath Crusaders edged Wath Brow Hornets at the Millennium Stadium, Post Office Road, Featherstone.

I imagine we could all be at Featherstone again this autumn for the 2022 Grand Final, and it would be no massive surprise if either the Crusaders or Hornets – or both – are there again, although at least half-a-dozen other outfits can also lay claim to having genuine title ambitions. Those all obviously hail from the Premier Division, of course, while last year any of the near-50 clubs involved had, in theory at least, the championship in their sights. 

That was something I quite liked about the one-off 2021 structure. The reverse side of that coin, however, was that some clubs faced what were, for them, very tough fixture lists and against that backdrop it was gratifying that only two teams – Askam and Gateshead Storm – fell by the wayside. Hopefully both with be back in the NCL sooner rather than later. 

If and when they do they will be likely to find that the competition will have tightened up on one or two aspects of its minimum standards criteria, which had to be relaxed somewhat last time. Notably the Conference allowed `walkover’ wins, given how hard some clubs were apparently finding it to raise a team in the face of players testing positive for Covid19. That, insists Hunt, will not be repeated. Any fixtures called off through coronavirus will be treated as postponed, and will be expected to be fulfilled at a later stage. That’s only right in what is after all the amateur game’s flagship league, although there could possibly have to be a rethink if circumstances change, in fact even as I was penning this paragraph I received a call from a pal who watches rugby union now and then but whose plans to attend a game on Saturday afternoon had been scuppered through several forwards being diagnosed with Covid. Let’s hope that’s not a harbinger of Rugby League’s immediate future.

Back to Trevor Hunt’s call, though, and the innovation (which is perhaps the wrong word, as it’s something that has already been used at Betfred Super League level) which is the use of cam recorders by referees, who will have them strapped to their heads during Premier Division games. I think this has to be a good thing as it will provide the NCL’s disciplinary committee with harder evidence in contested cases. Their existence could also act as a deterrent to players (and, perhaps, although I shouldn’t say it, referees) whose behaviour can occasionally lean towards the unsatisfactory. Videos can also be used for training purposes, possibly even by club coaches as well as those whose job it is to nurture match officials. 

Good all round, I think, other than the fact that referees used to look, in my opinion anyway, a bit ridiculous with cameras strapped to their heads. Hopefully someone, somewhere, can come up with a design that enhances, rather than detracts from, the natural charisma that so many of our whistlers seem to possess. Let’s hope the initiative, which I’m sure that Jimmy Leach would have been very interested in, is extended to all four of the NCL’s divisions.

I was very sorry to learn last week that Jimmy, who was a real stalwart of the grassroots game in the Oldham area, and who had very strong and lasting connections with St Annes, passed away thirteen days ago.

A great bloke, one of the nicest you could ever meet, Jimmy was for many years something of a `go-to’ man if I was struggling for whatever reason for match reports in his region, and he always stepped forward very quickly to help me in any way he could.

His friend Paul Neville said: “Jim spent the best part of 60 years supporting St Anne’s, although he never played.

“I was told he tagged along with his friends who did play and then went after match socialising with them.

“The last couple of years had seen Jim take on a role of supporter when his health took a turn for the worse, resulting in him having to use a mobility scooter. One week before Christmas Jim’s daughter informed me of his admittance to hospital and his health went downhill from then on, resulting in his death on Tuesday 18 January.”

Jimmy, who was well-known and well-liked around the NCL circuit, will be badly missed. His funeral will take place on Friday 11 February (11.00am) at Hollinwood Crematorium, followed by a celebration of his life at St Anne’s rugby club.

And there is sadness, too, over the passing of David Ratcliffe, whose death at the age of 72 was announced on Sunday. David was the Vice Chair and Treasurer of the Bradford Amateur Rugby League for over three decades, was a leading light on the Bradford Referees’ Society, and also served the Bradford Cricket League Umpires Society with distinction for many years.

I’m sure that everyone in the amateur game will join me in extending condolences to the family and friends of both Jimmy and David.  

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