Talking Grassroots: Heading into a storm?

Talking Grassroots Rugby League with Phil Hodgson of League Express

National Conference League chiefs, who have already dealt with a request by Featherstone Lions to drop from the top flight to Division One in 2022, with Leigh Miners Rangers elevated in their place, face a further structural tweak following the withdrawal from the competition of another Premier Division side in Underbank Rangers.

In one sense Rangers’ departure is surprising, given that they reached the play-offs stage in the recently-concluded campaign. On the other hand there may have been warning signs in that they won one of those knockout games with only twelve men. It seems that Underbank are switching to the Yorkshire Men’s League through simply not having enough players, although those players seem to be of high quality.

Hopefully they’ll regroup and return while the NCL, which hasn’t yet issued a statement on their departure, will – I expect – simply promote teams through each of the divisions, with one more space now available to new applicants as they seek to operate with four divisions of twelve teams.

While it’s disappointing to have to write about Underbank’s exit, at least the episode relates to the regular fluctuations of life in sport. The thoughts of Rugby League folk have, over the last few days, been dominated by another issue which I’d prefer to ignore, but can’t.

When I was in my 20s and I watched former players in their 60s and 70s hobbling around the Middleton Arms in south Leeds as a result of the wear and tear of Rugby League, I mused to myself “that could be me one day”.

It didn’t stop me playing, though. For one thing, injuries never happen to you, do they? And, for another thing it’s hard when you’re that age to properly envisage becoming old. It’s like imagining living on another planet.

We do all get old, though, other than those who sadly fall by the wayside before dotage arrives (and I’ve unfortunately had to say “tara” to a few myself).

My worries – such as they were – about not being able to get around easily in later years were unfounded. I’ve always said, since hanging up my boots in my 30s, that I never suffered a serious injury, and there’s been no serious wear-and-tear issues either.

My only injury worth mentioning at all, and that only in passing, was the loss of a front tooth on Stanningley’s old pitch at the back of the Wagon & Horses; that tooth is either still embedded in the pitch, or it’s in my lip. They weren’t too sure at the hospital.

And that was it. No other injuries at all. Although, in the light of ever-changing sensibilities through to the present day, maybe I should review that statement.

That incident at Stanningley is a case in point. I was knocked out, but after a dose of smelling salts I stayed on. Everyone, until fairly recent times, did the same in such circumstances – and not only in Rugby League, but in all sports.

The biggest repercussion, from my point of view, came the following week. We were at Fryston and despite still being groggy I played, in my usual position at fullback. Now Fryston had a fullback (who was much more talented than I was, I have to say, although that’s not saying much) who had a huge ‘boot’ on him, one of the famous Bibb brothers I think he was.

Towards the end of the game he launched a high up-and-under on me. No problem, I was nicely under it. Well actually there was a problem, because I’d been ‘seeing double’ all week and was under the ‘wrong’ ball.

Everyone, including me, scrabbled around on the floor, but Fryston got possession and scored.

It was very embarrassing but that’s as far as my suffering went, other than a residual lack of confidence under ‘bombs’ which stayed with me until I retired around a decade later.

Along the way I sustained concussion quite often, largely through my limited tackling technique, linked with the fact that as the last line of defence I firmly believed in not backing off tackles in any way – an approach that, like most players, I adopted in whatever position I played. There’s no point stepping onto a pitch otherwise, surely?

It was a head injury that led to me finally packing in playing – a simple clash of heads with our winger when we tried to stop an opponent from either side of him.

That meant, after smelling salts not being enough to revive either us, an ambulance being called, and a couple of days off work as a one-man insurance broker, which wasn’t good at all as, for example, clients who might have crashed their cars couldn’t get their claims processed. The episode followed a previous episode when, on the Saturday night following yet another knock on my bonce, a teammate asked me to double the benefits on his personal accident policy. A few weeks later he broke his leg. When I got his file out to activate his claim I saw, to my horror, that although I’d written to him the Monday after his request confirming action had been taken, I’d neglected to inform the insurance company.

Fortunately they paid out in the end, but it took some persuading on my part. My mate was great about it but the whole saga was one I could have done without.

All this, please believe me, is something I meant to write about a few weeks ago. Time-sensitive stories kept cropping up, though, which I reckoned needed more instant reflection.

In a way I’m glad I temporarily ‘spiked’ my offering because developments of the last week, in which the game seems to be in danger of legal action from former players, has thrown the issue of concussion and other injuries into sharp focus.

These are, I have to stress, my views and not necessarily those of League Express, or of any other organisation with which I may be connected. But I’ve got to say that I’m getting more than a little irked at actions in the past being judged by the sensibilities of the present, and of people being held to account for behaviour which was very much the norm at the time.

I could write several pages on wider issues, but I won’t. However, in terms of concussion injuries, while stressing that former players are of course fully entitled take any course of action they like, I struggle as a layman to understand how anyone can be held accountable for the way they carried out their duties several decades ago if they did so in line with common and accepted practice. I appreciate that we seem to be mainly discussing aftercare here, rather than the actual cause and immediate treatment of injuries, but as far as I can remember (and despite having sustained regular concussion, I don’t think my memory’s too bad) no one, anywhere, in any sport or in any other walk of life, including those who had ‘taken’ the knock, did very much afterwards other than wait until they felt fit to play in the next game. As my own experience illustrates, many would turn out much earlier than that (and as I pen this I can sense readers nodding in agreement).

It will be interesting to see how the proposed actions pan out. I fear that great damage could be done to ours and other sports, which is a shame because the Rugby Football League is, without question, very much on the case these days in doing the right thing in terms of player protection, and indeed on correct procedures in general. I don’t see how anyone can argue otherwise and I also don’t see – again, as a layman – how the RFL, clubs or individuals can be blamed, retrospectively, for acting in ways that were perfectly acceptable in times gone by. As an illustration, look up the 1962 Challenge Cup Final on YouTube and watch how Wakefield’s Derek ‘Rocky’ Turner was treated when he got a crack on the head. And ponder that Hull’s Welsh hooker Tommy Harris won the Lance Todd Trophy in 1960, despite his depleted side being walloped 38-5 by Wakefield Trinity, largely through his bravery in playing on despite concussion. A passage in ‘Wembley Magic’, by Graham Morris and John Huxley, states: “(Harris) captured votes with his skilled performance but it was later revealed that it had also been one of courage. Harris had suffered concussion in the first half. Although he could see through only one eye and was taken off twice for treatment, he returned each time to impress with his cover tackling.”
Different days, different ways: which, for me, is what it’s all about.

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