Talking Grassroots: Challenge Cup clashes to saviour

There’s plenty going on in amateur Rugby League as 2021 heads to a close – or not yet going on, at least in terms of the scheduling of the BARLA Yorkshire Cup.

I’d planned to preview the final, which had been inked in for Sunday 2 January, at the Millennium Stadium, Post Office Road, Featherstone Rovers, in this issue, given that League Express is taking a sabbatical next Monday.

That, though, is now on hold following the postponement of Saturday’s semi-final between Hunslet Club Parkside and Upton, the latter side having a number of players who have contracted Covid.

The final has been put back to 9 January – still at Featherstone Rovers – and I now aim to run a preview in our 3 January issue, which will include a focus, for sure, on Doncaster Toll Bar.

Hopefully I’ll also be able to properly feature the side they’ll be facing, although the fact that the delayed semi-final is being played on Sunday 2 January presents obvious logistical challenges, which I’m hoping to overcome, given that League Express will be on print deadlines when either Hunslet Club Parkside or Upton emerge as Toll Bar’s opponents.

BARLA, happily, has confirmed that the Under 18s Yorkshire Cup Final will still be played as part of a ‘double-header’ with the Open Age decider.

Meanwhile, hot news last week included the draws for the opening two rounds of the Betfred Challenge Cup. The first round will be staged on the weekend of 15/16 January and there are some tasty-looking ties on offer.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on the game between London Chargers and Ellenborough Rangers (what a Cup power the men from Maryport were a quarter of a century ago, incidentally, under that magnificent player/coach Gary Murdock).

The Chargers, if they win, will be rewarded with a second round ‘derby’ at Betfred League 1 outfit London Skolars, and that really would be a clash worth seeing.

Elbra will have something to say about that of course, even if too many visits to the capital could lead to their players possibly dropping Cumbrian terms like Marra for Cockney rhyming slang, although their mothers might raise objections.

Another intriguing possibility at the second round stage is a clash between the Army and the Royal Navy. I can’t recall any previous meetings of Services sides in the Challenge Cup – Orrell St James and Bridgend Blue Bulls, who are the respective hosts to the Army and the Navy, will naturally be doing their utmost to ensure that history isn’t made in 2022.

Both Upton and Hunslet Club Parkside will, for their part, aim to travel to, respectively, West Hull and Featherstone Lions as newly-crowned Yorkshire Cup holders, which would I’m sure boost the crowd at either of those ties.

And there should be a very big attendance in Castleford, where Lock Lane entertain reigning National Conference League champions Thatto Heath Crusaders, who reached the fifth round in 2019. A thriller is in prospect, for sure.

In a busy week, the NCL’s fixtures for 2022 were also announced. Thatto host Siddal on the opening day, on 5 March, in a fixture that could quite feasibly be repeated as the Grand Final, while new boys Bentley and Seaton Rangers begin life in the flagship league with home fixtures, against Hensingham and Eastmoor Dragons.

And today (Monday 20 December) we’ll know for sure how many teams will contest the 2022 BARLA National Cup. Nineteen entries had been received by Friday’s deadline (including, notably, one from the Prison Services) while Orrell St James deserve praise for putting forward two sides.

Hopefully a few postal entries will be on BARLA’s doormat when Chair Sue Taylor pops in after having had her breakfast.

Given all this and more, excitement in all quarters will reach fever pitch over the next couple of months as amateur Rugby League sets about returning to normal.

I have to say, though, that even as I typed that last sentence the threat of Omicron hung heavy in my thoughts. Whether we will all find ourselves back at square one, with contact sports such as ours hit hard by lockdowns, remains to be seen.

Fingers crossed that won’t turn out to be the case, and Rugby League action will be able to continue without any major restrictions.

Our sport at the grassroots, despite the huge efforts of all the folk who serve it so well, on and off the field, is facing major problems, of that there’s no doubt.

The impact of the pandemic is an obvious one, then there’s worrying trends such as legal action by former players over alleged historic concussion issues, which could if successful (and even, perhaps, if not) potentially affect the future of the amateur game.

Then there’s player commitment, or the lack of it, certainly at Open Age level, and which to my mind is caused by us starting them too young (a bad thing, in my opinion).

‘Veterans’ who are still in their teens or early 20s still call themselves Rugby League players but, after many years of involvement, tend to no longer be hungry for the game and, all too often, turn up when it suits them.

It’s also, in fairness (and this is a good thing) caused by young men generally being more responsible parents than they were back in the day, family duties taking priority over perceived obligations to their coach and team-mates. That’s harder to argue against.

Overriding everything is the Rugby Football League’s Membership Scheme, which will become reality at the turn of the year. I fervently hope that this contentious issue will turn out to be a good thing.

There are plenty of people at the grassroots who fear that it will spell the death knell for amateur Rugby League; we are about to find out, and as a long-time lover of our sport I’m hoping beyond hope that they’re wrong.

A merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers.

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.