Talking Grassroots: Grasping the nettle

Talking Grassroots with Phil Hodgson of League Express

Good Samaritans! That’s the role being assumed by the Rugby Football League, which has announced that it will administer a £1.45 million fund on behalf of Sport England aimed at giving those amateur clubs rocked or adversely affected financially by the impact of the lockdowns a vital leg up.

Indeed the RFL’s chief executive Ralph Rimmer, who I know for a fact has long had close links with the grassroots game, has implored any outfits that are, in his words, “facing the cliff edge” to get in touch straight away.

That’s good to know in these testing times and I’m sure that many clubs will make use of the offer. I’ve also no doubt that some, given questions still being asked here and there over the RFL’s Membership Scheme, will look sideways at the fact that our governing body has stepped forward to hold, and pass on, the cash. That’s up to them, though.

It seems to me to be an excellent initiative, as was the event at Hindley last Wednesday when such as Oliver Gildart, Stefan Ratchford, Ben Currie and Jamie Peacock picked up paint brushes to help celebrate the relaunch of Ronseal’s ‘Pride in the Community’ drive, with the Wigan outfit’s clubhouse getting a welcome ‘tart-up’. Although, looking at the photos of some of those ‘greats’ in action, I can’t help reflecting that their Rugby League techniques are somewhat superior to their painting skills.

Hopefully Ronseal will be able to fulfil their aim of helping other clubs around the land in a similar way over the next year or so.
It was good, also, to be sent an interview by the RFL with Joe Stearne, the referee who was attacked during a recent National Conference League game. As I think I stated in a recent column, I know Joe a little bit. He was appointed to referee my own club’s matches on several occasions a few years ago – possibly at the time when he was finding his feet again after having been previously assaulted during a game, which is something I didn’t know about until I read the RFL’s article.

It seemed, back then, that quite a few young officials were being sent to us because Appointments Officer Ken Tinsdale knew that they’d be given a proper warm and respectful welcome and that any abuse would not be countenanced in any way. Many of those – including Joe – have subsequently embarked on successful careers and I really do hope he feels that, sooner rather than later, he will feel able to pick up the whistle again.

I’ve always found him to be a very approachable referee, with excellent player-management qualities, and it will be a boost for the sport if he can find it in himself to return. I’m sure that everyone in Rugby League will welcome him with open arms.

Finally, quite apart from treating referees properly, there are certain long-running issues that surely must be resolved if the sport is to survive in any properly meaningful way.

I took a call last week from Dewsbury Moor Maroons’ chairman Peter Charlesworth, who is concerned about the impact of the Rugby Football League’s Academy sides on clubs such as his own. The Moor lost their Under 16s team last year after half the side was signed on by professional clubs, leaving eight lads behind. The same has happened again this year.

Now, you might argue that that’s fair enough. If lads are good enough to turn pro, why not? And it’s not the professional clubs’ fault if the amateur clubs involved don’t have enough players left to carry on at that age group.

It’s not always quite as simple as that, though, is it? What all too often seems to happen (and I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily the case with the last two cohorts snapped up from Dewsbury Moor) is that professional outfits simply ‘trawl’ amateur clubs, effectively taking more players than they really need and leaving a near-empty shell behind. And, again all too often, lads who don’t make it, fail – for whatever reason – damaged pride, certainly, in some cases – to return to their junior outfits. And Peter Charlesworth told me a worrying story (one I’ve not come across before) of how one lad who has been signed on by a Super League club on a paid contract has, it seems, been told categorically that he won’t play for that club next year – while also being informed that the Super League club won’t allow him to turn out for Dewsbury Moor.

Something is surely seriously amiss if that tale is true – and I’ve no reason to doubt what Peter says. I understand that other Super League outfits have no such qualms about allowing lads to play with their old mates, which is surely how it should be. And there was an effort by National Conference League bosses a few years back whereby players who had turned pro could, if their new clubs didn’t require their services on any particular week, be entitled to turn out for their junior club. That initiative foundered in the face of opposition from many NCL clubs but, for me, it was a reasonable proposal; my only real concern was that a lad at the amateur club would miss out on selection as a consequence, but any coach worth his salt would surely be wise to any such issues and would only select the returning professional if his side was short (which, these days, is all too often the case, as we all know).

That’s a side issue, though. Peter’s call was the first I‘ve had on this subject for a while, and I suspect that the reason is that many folk at amateur level have more or less given up. But it’s a matter that needs addressing – and resolving.

As soon as I began covering the amateur game, which is a quarter of a century ago now, it became quickly apparent to me that it was a major problem, and I still have a vivid memory of meeting representatives from a professional club and an amateur outfit, in the mid-90s. One idea that was floated was that pro clubs should refrain from ‘trawling’, although I’ve come to realise that there’s a fat chance of that. After all, professional outfits are in competition with each other for talent and, quite naturally, they want to acquire that talent for as little outlay as possible. That’s what market forces are about.

At the same time, however, any farmer will tell you that crops and fields should be nurtured, not pillaged, otherwise his future will be bleak. That’s a lesson we in Rugby League seem, for whatever reason, unable to take on board. But if we don’t absorb that lesson, our amateur clubs will be in danger of withering away; and the professionals, denied their lifeblood (and entirely through their own stupidity) will follow suit.

Another possible solution to come out of that meeting, and one which had been put to me previously by RFL staff, was that young players should be mentored more effectively by their amateur clubs so that those that do take the professional ticket feel much more able to return should things not quite work out.

It’s time for everyone to grasp this particular nettle, I think.

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