Talking Grassroots: Challenge Cup gets off to a cracking start

The 2022 campaign got off to a blistering start over the weekend with exhilarating Betfred Challenge Cup action in most corners of the land, from London to Edinburgh, and from Wales to the North East. 

There really were some stand-out results, not least, in pure Rugby League terms, Lock Lane’s triumph over National Conference League champions Thatto Heath Crusaders, following which the Castleford outfit will visit Oldham in the second round.

Others have wider implications, though. I watched Orrell St James take on the British Army on the BBC, and what good coverage it was, with a big crowd adding to the sense of occasion. The Army edged the issue, for me, through having the kind of fitness you’d expect (indeed, want) them to have, and their late win sets up an intriguing tie against the Royal Navy.

And what about London Chargers’ last-gasp triumph over those traditional cup giants of Cumbria, Ellenborough Rangers? The Chargers’ reward is a visit to Betfred League 1 outfit London Skolars – what a game that promises to be; the 2022 Challenge Cup’s blue touch paper has well and truly been ignited! 

There couldn’t really be a better way for most clubs to start the new season by taking part in the Challenge Cup but bread-and-butter league fare isn’t too far away now, with most competitions kicking off in early March (a little earlier in some cases). I checked out league officials last week regarding how things are looking and basic information, as things stand right now anyway, can be found in today’s issue; details on the North West Men’s Leagues will, I hope, be revealed in next Monday’s copy while news from Wales, where Rugby League has expanded significantly in recent years, may be a little further down the line, although the feedback is that an April or May kick-off is anticipated. 

One piece of intelligence that readers may spot, tucked away in the list of teams that will contest the Yorkshire Men’s League from early March, is that Castleford Panthers are relaunching their Open Age team. This is excellent news, although not entirely surprising as we’ve sought to help them, at the Castleford & Featherstone ARL – with which I’m involved – by inviting them to enter our David Poulter Open Cup, partly to give their Under 18s a chance to sample adult competition.

In the end Panthers couldn’t take part in it (something to do with not being able to play before February because of registration regulations, I think I’ll leave that one there) but the main thing is that they’re going to be up and running again, which will surely delight everyone in amateur Rugby League. The side was for many years a real credit to the grassroots game, gracing the NCL for quite a few seasons, and lots of folk will be monitoring their progress with interest. I’m sure they’ll do well, especially with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Craig Smith in place as head coach, with Hunslet player Liam Carr assisting. 

That’s not the only good news that’s come my way recently. Julia Lee – who is just as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Rugby League as is Craig Smith – has invited volunteers to help with her ‘Life with the Lionesses’ project, which she’s been toiling away now for a number of years. This is a celebration of a quarter of a century of Women’s international Rugby League (I won’t forget very easily the glorious Ashes-winning tour of Australia in 1996, for starters) and those who step forward can be assured of many enjoyable Fridays, over the next twelve months, as records are archived and facts delved into at Heritage Quay, Huddersfield. I hope and trust that Lee will be inundated with offers of help; she, and the project itself, deserve it.

Meanwhile the issue of membership fees is coming more and more to a head and the RFL has reminded clubs that, from last Friday, they will not be able to pay fees to the governing body on behalf of players, who must now fork out directly. I wonder what, if any, effect that will have on player recruitment and retention. We’ll see. 

In the same club update, incidentally, the RFL reminded secretaries of teams that play on artificial pitches of the regulations and requirements regarding testing. I thought, at first glance, that this related to Covid implications, but not so. I have to wonder whether the days of artificial pitches might be numbered. It’s generally accepted that plastic, and similarly synthetic materials, are a scourge and quite apart from the fact that all too often it seems to find its way into the food chain – and, to borrow the cliché, choke the planet – it can’t help, either, with drainage, I imagine. This aspect might be worth reviewing in a decade or so by observers such as me.

If I’m around, that is. I’ve been self-isolating for a few days now and have been pondering on how I contracted the virus.

I’ll never really know, I suppose, but one incident is sticking in my mind. I spent much of last Sunday at Featherstone Rovers, covering the BARLA Yorkshire Under 18s and Open Age finals. For most of that time I was rooted in the middle of the press box, as normal, but after the youth game, which closed in a touchline brawl and a consequent commotion in the stand, I popped to the gents.

When I emerged I was in for an unpleasant surprise. A lady, and two or three men, seemed to be waiting for me. She said to me, in foul and intemperate language, that I “wanted reporting.” Taken aback, I just looked at her but, continuing her obscenity-peppered rant, she shouted: “No one shouts in my ear like that, I’ve a mind to put you on your *** ***.”

It occurred to me that she had been embroiled in the earlier fracas, was possibly the mother of one of the players, and had mistaken me for someone else. I said: “I think you’ve got the wrong person, I’m a journalist, I’ve been in the press box all the time.”

That only inspired more invective and the assertion by the lady, confirmed by her gentlemen friends, that I was a liar. Although the blokes (but not her) did start to look a bit more thoughtful.

So I shrugged my shoulders and returned to the press box. I’ve since been told by a friend that I should report the incident to BARLA, who obviously condemn such threatening behaviour as a matter of course. But I’m not sure what they could do. I don’t even know which club, if indeed either, the lady was involved with. However, if she or her friends are reading this – rest assured, you had the wrong person. And please, please, try not to be so hasty in seeking retribution if, at any time in the future, you feel wronged by anybody. 

Meanwhile I was saddened to hear last week of the death of Pete Dutton. 

As his friend Gavin Wightman said: “Pete had dedicated his spare time to Rugby League, from playing, to coaching numerous amateur clubs before joining local and club radio to commentate on match days, recently with Featherstone and Bradford.”

Pete Dutton will be sadly missed and my condolences go to his family and friends. And my commiserations are extended, too, to the family and friends of Gaz Roper, the 35-year-old Wigan Spring View player and father of six who died on New Year’s Day in a hit-and-run incident. Wigan St Judes and Wigan RUFC are playing an Under 13s game at Parson’s Meadow on Saturday 29 January, to help raise urgent funds. Get there – or at least support this very important cause – if you can.

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