Talking Grassroots: History repeating itself again

League Express grassroots correspondent Phil Hodgson reflects on arguments over governance that never seem to go away.

It must be about 25 years ago now that I was present at a regular meeting of the Leeds & District League, as a club delegate, at which Frank Robinson set out his case for the launch of an organisation to take over the running of the amateur game from BARLA.

Frank was unhappy about the way that the British Amateur Rugby League Association was going about its business at that time. I forget what his exact gripe was (in truth there’s almost always something going on in any organisation, in any walk of life, that’s upsetting somebody or other) but he certainly felt strongly about it.

In the end his bid to form what I think he dubbed the British Amateur Rugby League Federation floundered for want of support. My own view, which I put forward at that meeting, was that there was already a body in place (BARLA) to represent our interests, and that the most sensible thing to do for those who were less than satisfied was to put themselves forward for election for office and subsequently seek to change or improve the Association from within. Otherwise we would have been doing little more than reinventing the wheel.

As I recall it, although I may be wrong, Frank Robinson seemed to have little faith in the democratic process insofar as it related to BARLA in the later stages of the 20th century.

That episode has drifted back into my mind recently in the wake of the RFL’s plans to introduce membership fees from next year.

Without going into the pros and cons of that issue it’s nevertheless apparent that there are many folk at the grassroots who are, rightly or wrongly, unhappy with the way that the Rugby Football League – which won the unification battle a couple of decades ago and is therefore the governing body for the amateur game – is handling matters of late.

Many of those people seem to feel that BARLA, which is the body to which they’d automatically turn in these circumstances for support, guidance and leadership, is not really anywhere to be seen. In addition I’m hearing whispers and moans regarding the efficiency of BARLA’s democratic process. And, indeed, there are calls here and there (including in the League Express Mailbag recently, when one correspondent put my name forward as a focal point – nice to be mentioned but thanks and no thanks) for a new body to be formed to represent grassroots Rugby League.

So we’ve come full circle, really, since the late 1990s. Anyone seriously considering trying to emulate Frank Robison would, I think, have to persuade Sport England to donate funds destined for amateur Rugby League to the new body rather than to the RFL. That would be a difficult task, to be sure, in fact it would be next to impossible unless, perhaps, it could be clearly demonstrated that the new body really would represent the grassroots game as a whole in ways that the RFL and BARLA doesn’t. That was very much the case back in 1973, when a brave and inspired group of men and women launched BARLA – to the immense benefit of not only the amateur game but, by extension, the professional and international arenas.

I’m not sure whether half a century or so ago public funding in the shape of Sport England backing, or something similar, actually existed. Those were days when even sponsorships were a comparatively new innovation. Anyone proposing to launch a ‘British Amateur Rugby League Federation’ or whatever in 2021 would probably have to try to do so without the support, financially at any rate, of Sport England, which I think may be monitoring this particular spat with a gimlet gaze. In fact Sport England’s interest may actually predate this present wrangle. Which begs the question: is that support really, really needed? The answer is very probably yes, but is has to be said that back in the day amateur and professional clubs seemed to operate perfectly well without any central support (although all professional clubs had to pass a percentage – I’ve got five or 15 per cent in my head – of their gate receipts into a central pot to be shared with the other 29. Different days and different ways, eh?).

Maybe amateur clubs could consider standing on their own feet, which would be a huge step, especially as I understand BARLA is sitting on a pot of some £750,000 which you might say actually belongs to those very clubs.

It will certainly be interesting to see how things develop over the next few months regarding a) the RFL’s membership fee issue b) BARLA’s role in representing amateur leagues, clubs and players and c) whether any attempt is going to be made to launch a new governing body for the grass roots. In fact it will be more than interesting; if it all wasn’t so serious it could be exciting.

All of which is a world away from what should without doubt be exciting – action on the field of play.

The 2021 National Conference League is starting to take shape in six of its seven regional leagues, as the flagship competition wisely operates on a localised basis this season. The seventh league – League A, in Cumbria – kick-starts at the weekend with one fixture, between Askam and Hensingham. Within a few weeks the teams in the far northwest will also have bedded in, with all 49 teams in the NCL bidding for places in the Championship play-offs, with knockout competitions on offer for those that miss out. I’m getting the feeling that we really do now have meaningful amateur Rugby League to enjoy, including in the various regional leagues, although were worrying observations form one or two NCL clubs on Saturday evening that regionalised leagues, comprising as they inevitably must teams of varying standards, are proving tough in some quarters. Hopefully the prospect of end-of-season cup competitions will help wavering players hold their resolve.

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