Talking Grassroots: RFL’s host of initiatives to sustain the grassroots game

No one can say that folk at the Rugby Football League spend their weekdays sitting around twiddling their thumbs!

The stalwarts who run our amateur clubs were treated, on Friday afternoon, to a 19-page missive from our governing body setting out a host of initiatives undertaken in recent months aimed at sustaining the grassroots. 

Many of those have been reported and commented on in these pages, but a few caught my eye.

There was great concern towards the end of last year that the RFL’s decision to impose membership fees on players could seriously damage the amateur game. Those worries continue, but the RFL believes that they are unfounded, stating: “The Community Game Delivery Team and colleagues across the organisation have worked tirelessly over the past two months to ensure that people were able not only to register but also to join OuRLeague Active. 

“Most participants are paying the membership fee at the point of registration, however there are several clubs (112) that have opted to pay for their players’ fees. We have just announced our second monthly prize draw winners that see not only individual adult, and youth and junior players winning prizes, but also a community club receiving a prize which include `money can’t buy’ activities such as a coaching session with a coach of their choice. Early registration data indicates there has been no adverse effect on numbers of active participants following the introduction of the scheme.”

Let’s hope that remains the case.

Meanwhile it’s good to hear that Player Development Leagues pre-season meetings have taken place with the Greater Manchester Development League and the Midlands Junior League and that “the number of new clubs and teams continues to grow,” while “Girls Development Hubs will be the seeds for new development leagues in Cumbria, the South West and London.”

The RFL tells us, regarding Girls Rugby League, which is operating at Under 16s, Under 14s, Under 13s, Under 12s and Under 11s, that “there are more clubs, teams, players, and competitions than ever before for the 2022 season, with 53 clubs and 116 teams. Currently the number of players registered is 1624; more than in the whole of 2019. We are confident that we will exceed the 2021 figure of 2196.”

Women’s Rugby League, meanwhile, boasts 34 clubs in the north, while the south is being targeted for further growth.

It’s good, too, to hear that Regional Development Forums are to be launched, building on a pilot in the south, comprising “key stakeholders”, to ensure that recommendations can be met and that the game can continue to flourish. It’s not so good, though, that the long-established District Leagues (can you get stronger stakeholders than those?) don’t get a mention. As chairman of the Castleford & Featherstone ARL I’d have appreciated being contacted, although in fairness it may well be that I’m getting ahead of myself; the RFL could have me, and my counterparts at other District Leagues (notably Barrow, who are again staging their successful 6-a-side competition throughout May) inked in for consultation in the near future. The RFL’s statement stresses: “Key stakeholders currently being identified and approached; the aim is to have these groups in place by May 2022.” Working closely with District Leagues will surely fit with “ensuring the decision-making forums within organisations represent the communities in which they are based. In turn this will inspire greater inclusivity and diversity within that organisation.”

Meanwhile the RFL has sought to address, through discussions with Competition Chairs and Discipline Chairs “the perceived inconsistency with the approach to issuing misconduct sanctions; to support this, a generic dismissal report form has been created and circulated to all Competitions and Match Officials for them to use when dealing with misconduct cases. It was agreed that all results of discipline cases are to be sent to the RFL who will monitor and report on the discipline cases across the community game. To address these issues, all match official abuse cases will be referred to the Safeguarding Management Group for assessment. They will determine whether this is a safeguarding case, due to the match official being Under 18, or whether the League can deal with these cases directly.”

Yes, the RFL certainly doesn’t sit back and relax. Kelly Barrett, the Head of Delivery, Community Game Competitions, deserves praise for her unstinting efforts, as do her colleagues. 

I was with a couple of those last Wednesday, at the second stage of the 2022 Men’s President’s Cup, which was superbly hosted by Lock Lane. Peter Longbottom oversaw the event, which involved matches between England Universities and Great Britain Police, and Great Britain Teachers and UK Armed Forces. David Butler, meanwhile, manages the Student team and is a key figure behind a well-honed selection structure which involves regional matches, followed by a North v South `Origin’ game. 

I and many others tootled down to Lock Lane expecting the Police, who had lost 52-0 to the Armed Forces in the Series opener, to be overwhelmed by a side that had accounted for the Teachers 32-12 in their first outing. Maybe the Students felt the same, but it didn’t turn out that way as the Coppers edged a thriller 38-32. For me, the fact that England Universities played seven substitutes (out of necessity, as they’re preparing for the Student Four Nations) may have actually hindered their cause. I’ve been in the same situation; trying to monitor who has and who hasn’t got onto the pitch can be distracting.

GB Teachers were beaten 40-18 by UK Armed Forces in the second match but that result doesn’t tell the story at all. The Teachers – who have a terrific new chairman in Carl Etherington, who was on the bench in case he was needed, and who has enlisted his wife as a sponsor – were in front at the break and with a shade more good fortune at key moments might well have emulated the Police by pulling off a shock.

As Longbottom rightly said afterwards: “What fantastic entertainment for just three quid!” And, as far as I’m aware, Peter hadn’t even sampled one of Lock Lane’s wonderful Spam sandwiches…

The President’s Cup reaches its conclusion on Wednesday 25 May, at Leigh Miners, when England Universities and UK Armed Forces go head-to-head and the Police and the Teachers face off. The Students need to win by 30 points to take the title at the expense of the Armed Forces, which is a very tall order indeed. But, given the madness of last Wednesday, who knows? And while the Teachers have no mathematical hopes of being champions, the same cannot be said of the Police, although they’d have to win by something like 90 points, and rely on the Students prevailing by 30, to lift the silverware. Now that really is a big ask.

Finally, while folk at the RFL certainly work hard on behalf of the grassroots, it’s harder getting responses from Friday afternoon onwards, including from some of the leagues that have long been under their wing. I queried, three days ago, why so many of this weekend’s Yorkshire Junior League fixtures are listed as postponed by the Game Day agency, including all Under 15s matches, practically every Under 16s game and all but one at Under 14s. I was still no wiser as League Express went to press.

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