Talking Grassroots: Excellent news to have the NCL back in front of cameras

It must be around four years ago now that National Conference League fixtures were screened live on Saturday afternoons in an initiative that lasted only a season but which remains fondly remembered. 

The coverage, which was very professional – as you’d expect, as NCL chair Trevor Hunt, who has decades of experience as a commentator and as a journalist, was often behind the mic – was well-received in homes around the land and by those who turned up as spectators.

There were big crowds at just about every game and what struck me was how picturesque are the backdrops to so many Conference grounds, perhaps especially in Cumbria.

The excellent news which emerged late last week is that the Rugby Football League’s OuRLeague service will stream ten NCL fixtures this year and, happily, it’s in Cumbria that the coverage is starting, with the Premier Division fixture between Wath Brow Hornets and Egremont Rangers on Easter Saturday, 16 April being screened live. 

I’m delighted. I was very sorry when, apparently for funding reasons, the previous broadcasters pulled out, but as the code’s governing body the RFL will, I imagine, have monetary considerations some way down its list of priorities, even though cost is of course important. 

What the RFL can be certain of – and it’s something that other sports can’t say with any confidence at all about what they would be able to offer at so-called ‘lower’ levels – is that NCL games will provide terrific entertainment. I’ve said this many times in this column, and I know that I’m probably preaching to the converted on this particular page, but action in the amateur game can be every bit as compelling and exciting as it at the highest level of the professional arena. In fact I’d suggest it can be more entertaining as players at the grassroots are less likely to be overcoached, and those in the dugout are probably less obsessed with percentages revolving around set completion and the like.

So – tune in to  OuRLeague on Easter Saturday and sample some amateur Cumbrian entertainment, not to mention the views. I’m sure the match will be a thriller and that those that follow will be equally captivating. And, if the previous experiment is anything to go by, the off-field atmosphere will be relaxed and convivial, which is exactly how it should be, and what the RFL is presumably aiming for in its latest missive to clubs, a ‘Spectator Behaviour Note’ which went out on Friday. It totals almost 1,500 words, which for me amount to simple common sense. It’s a template, though, that clubs must adhere to (not that they shouldn’t already) because there’s a veiled warning in there that any that don’t could find themselves in hot water if any spectator trouble ever surfaces.

Back to views, though, and few if any are better than those at Saddleworth. One of the best Rugby League photos I’ve ever seen was taken by my colleague at the old Rugby Leaguer, Gerald Webster. Gerald was a highly professional snapper who would travel anywhere from his home in St Helens to take in a game, whatever the weather (bear in mind that this was back when the whole sport was winter-based).

It must have been in the late 1990s when plummeting temperatures and falling snow regularly wiped out just about the entire programme but that never fazed Gerald, who would go anywhere in search of a surviving fixture.

He was out of luck one day, though – at least in finding a game that was still on. Eventually he fetched up at Saddleworth where, even though Rangers’ game was off, his shot of the picturesque ground, its stand and, in the background, the snow-covered Pennines shimmering in the winter sun, was simply beautiful.

I doubt that it will snow this week (although as I review this effort, early on Sunday morning, the weather forecast on the radio seems to be hinting otherwise) but, even if it does, do try to get along to Saddleworth this Wednesday, when the 2022 President’s Cup will be kicking off with a double-header, with the holders (UK Armed Forces) facing Great Britain Police at 8.00pm, while England Students and Great Britain Teachers will square up a couple of hours earlier. The round robin competition will continue in late May and late June, and it’s fantastic to see it back with us after the lockdowns.

Interest is high in amateur Rugby League and, for proof, the blue-chip IT company The Link Group are sponsoring two of Birkenshaw Bluedogs’ girls’ teams. This is one of the most uplifting sponsorship stories I’ve ever had the privilege to write about as it’s developed in what is, to my mind, exactly the best way, which is to say organically. 

What happened is that a lady took her daughter along to enjoy playing Rugby League, got involved herself (as is often the case, as many a parent will verify) and, as an employee of Link Group, was able to persuade her bosses (not that they needed much, if any, talking round) to back the girls.

As I say, it’s an uplifting tale to add to the feelgood factor caused by the clocks changing. Those lasses may be pleased that they don’t play in the Yorkshire Junior League which, the GameDay service persists in erroneously stating (despite queries by me going back a number of years) that some Under 12s games kick off at 1.30am. Oh dear. It’s one thing making Super League players turn out twice with only a three-or-four day turnaround (not something I have a problem with, but maybe that’s just me), it’s quite another having children not yet in their teens turn out in the dead of night. And it’s not yet the first day of April, otherwise I’d have known the cause.

Congratulations, meanwhile, are due to the Northumbria and Hull teams that won, respectively, the Student Rugby League’s Championship and Trophy deciders at Nottingham on Wednesday, and commiserations to runners-up Leeds Beckett and Birmingham. GameDay tends to hide such competitions under a bit of a bushel for some reason (for example there’s nothing in the way they issue fixtures and results to indicate that they are finals) which is not only a great shame, it’s perplexing. Hopefully the system will be improved in future years. 

It’s good to hear, too, that, at a younger level in education, the Champion Schools competition will be back this year. For reasons, I imagine, to do with the fact that the Betfred Challenge Cup Final is being played at Tottenham Hotspur, rather than at Wembley, it’s centring on the Magic Weekend. While It’s a bit of wrench that the Steven Mullaney Memorial Trophy Boys’ Year 7 game won’t be played at Wembley, at least it’s back, together with all the other Boys’ and Girls’ finals, most of which will be hosted by Newcastle Thunder, which is a really nice touch as the north east really can be counted, these days, as being in Rugby League’s heartlands, while Featherstone Rovers will also be hosting a couple of games earlier in the year. Excellent stuff!

Finally, I was saddened to learn that one of the driving forces behind Rugby League in Italy, Tiziano Franchini, died last week at the far too young an age of 44, from a suspected heart attack.

I got to know Tiziano a little when I was PRO for the BARLA Great Britain Under 23s and we visited Italy in 2007 and again in 2008. Italian hospitality can be something else and those were memorable weeks, I can tell you, with Tiziano involved in much of the excitement. A real character, he will be sadly missed, and is a huge loss to the Italian game. I’m sure all who knew him will join me in extending commiserations to his family and his friends.

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.