Talking Grassroots: Defiance of Ukraine Rugby League president as sport shows its support

Sporting tours are, on the face of it, about what happens on the field of play, about performances and, primarily, about results.

That’s a superficial ‘take’, though. They’re also – perhaps mainly – about life experiences, about sampling other cultures and about forging friendships.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been on a number of tours with BARLA Great Britain Under 23s, to Italy. If I’d continued in my role as the team’s PRO I’d have very probably also been on a trip or two to Ukraine, who BARLA visited over, I think, the next couple of years.

I’m not sure, given the horrific events in that beleaguered land, whether I’m glad I didn’t, or whether I’m sorry. It must be harrowing – although nothing compared to Ukranians themselves – to see cities you’re familiar with being bombarded and destroyed, and people you might well have met suffering so grievously, whether in battling to protect their homeland or as refugees. 

One man who can give an insight is my old friend Roger Fagge who, as the then-BARLA Secretary (I think he was in post at that time) was on those tours. Roger is a bloke who is always ready to strike up friendships and that’s exactly what he did with Artur Martyrosian Jnr, the man who has done so much to develop Ukrainain Rugby League over the years.

I asked Roger if he could get in touch with Artur, who lives in Kyiv, to check on his and others’ welfare – something that I’m sure many Rugby League folk in this country are concerned about.

The situation in Ukraine is of course extremely volatile but, when Artur got back to Roger late last week, he was in very defiant mood, as I think all who know him would expect. Hopefully all is well – or as well as it can be – as readers take this in on Monday morning. 

I’m always conscious, as a journalist, of the impact the publishing of quotes can have on those who have made them. This, though, is on another level entirely; suffice so say, I think, instead of passing on those quotes, to say that Artur Martyrosian Jnr typifies the stance adopted by the vast majority, if not all, of his fellow countrymen. 

Roger said of his friend, who is probably pushing the age of 50: “Artur has done so much for Rugby League, emulating and building on the work done previously by his dad, and I think it’s true to say that every positive development in our sport in Ukraine stems from him.

“I think he embodies the character of all the Ukranian people. I’ve travelled the world quite a bit, partly through being involved with BARLA, and I’ve never met people more proud and respectful of themselves and others as Ukranians. And, in Rugby League terms, they are always very hungry to learn, and improve. I remember them hanging onto every word one of our coaches, Kevin Armitstead, said.

“It was good to be, with BARLA, part of their development, following great initial work by the GB Student Pioneers. But in all honesty Rugby League means little or nothing, of course, in this terrible tragedy. All our thoughts are with Artur, his family and friends, and the Ukranian nation.”

Fagge’s sentiments are being echoed by others in grassroots Rugby League, with Waterhead Warriors setting an excellent lead. 

The Oldham outfit issued a clarion call a few days ago for provisions to help support those affected by the crisis, stating on their Twitter account ahead of last Saturday’s home National Conference League Division Three ‘derby’ with Oldham St Annes on the first day of the campaign: “We’re open every weekend to drop off, and with a big weekend ahead we hope to have lots of donations!”

Waterhead are seeking, in particular, such items as raincoats, personal hygiene products, toothbrushes and toothpaste, wound dressings, bandages, candles and torches, rucksacks and bags.

Zoe Brennan, who works in the kitchen and bar at Waterhead’s Peach Road base, said: “I talk to quite a few of the parents and everyone was talking about these awful events, and quite a lot of the children are struggling, trying to get their heads around it.

“I put it to a few people and asked what they thought about getting the children involved, so that every family brings an item. We collect it all. I got in touch with a lady that has the containers and I’m going to get all our collections over to her so she can get them shipped. We have lots of players and lots of families and have seen a lot of footfall and a lot of donations. It’s the least we can do.”

She added: “We do try and do all we can for the local and wider communities. During Covid, for example, we did a lot of collections for the food bank. We are one big family, so why not share the love? It’s a little thing that we can try and support the Ukrainian people with.”

The first two containers are due to be shipped on Sunday 20 March but, with other hauliers in place, the club will continue collecting items every weekend. I’m sure that all Rugby League supporters will do all they can to help. Meanwhile, I almost feel guilty about reflecting on Rugby League after having focused on a real humanitarian tragedy, so I think that I‘ll keep my reflections on on-field action respectfully short, just saying that it was  good to have the National Conference League and other competitions back at the weekend – and how ironic it is that after a generally mild winter, until the rains of the last couple of weeks, we had a number of fixtures called off because of unfit pitches.

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