Talking Grassroots Rugby League: Membership divide still unbridged

Talking Grassroots Rugby League with Phil Hodgson of League Express

The tail-end of the year can catch up on you a bit, can’t it?

Apart from thoughts turning seriously to Christmas, folk in amateur Rugby League are increasingly being diverted by the Rugby Football League’s Membership Scheme, which will become reality in 2022.

I’ve not given my own opinion on it yet, largely because – unusually for me, many might say – I don’t really have one either way. I’ve spent the last few weeks and months listening hard to arguments on either side of the fence but what I do have to say is that I’ve yet to come across anyone at club level who is in favour. On the contrary, many are fearful for the future of their own organisations and for the sport as a whole because of the pending implementation.

The RFL, which is acutely conscious of this, issued an email late last week – which I report on elsewhere in these pages – once again setting out the case and asking grassroots activists to view a video interview with Robert Hicks who, in addition to being a top referee (and a bloke with strong connections to the amateur scene) is now the RFL’s Director of Operations and Legal.

Hicks makes a compelling case and I’m sure that those who run clubs around the land will listen carefully to what he has to say.

Although, as I said previously, I’ve not made my own mind up either way, there is an aspect to all this that sets alarm bells, if not exactly ringing, at least tinkling.

I’ve covered amateur Rugby League for this and other newspapers for quite a while, a quarter of a century in fact, and I’ve long described myself as being as much a political writer as a sports journalist, particularly during the long-running battle between the RFL and the British Amateur Rugby League Association over `ownership’ of the grassroots game (on which subject it was good to receive a photo of former BARLA Chairmen Maurice Oldroyd and Spen Allison, who celebrated their birthdays recently – two giants of sports politics, for my money).

A recurring trend, during those long and miserable years, was that the RFL would exclude me (always unintentionally, on their account) from announcements on issues on which I was taking BARLA’s side, which was on most of them to be fair.

It seems to be happening again on the controversial Membership issue, despite my earlier requests to be kept in the loop. I only know about Robert Hicks’ interview – details of which I’m happy to pass on to readers – because a number of people at the grassroots have kindly forwarded the RFL’s email to me. I’m almost getting the sense that I’ve been excluded by the governing body because I’ve failed to give the membership scheme my wholehearted support. To give the RFL the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume it’s a simple failure of communication.

Quite apart from the membership scheme, amateur Rugby League is facing a host of important issues as 2022 hovers ever-nearer. On the good news front I’m hearing whispers that the Scholarships are to be ditched. That’s a shame in one way – I was very much in the `loop’ when the Scholarships were launched, by former RFL employee Tom O’Donovan and BARLA’s Stuart Sheard and the message was rammed home, at that time, that it was all about promising young players receiving quality coaching at professional clubs to further their development. Importantly, it was spelled out that although lads might be given tracksuit tops and other apparel by their local pro outfit, they had not been signed on in any way; they were still members of the amateur club that had nurtured them from, often, a young age.

Suddenly, and without any by-your-leave that I was aware of, Scholarship games began to be played. Only half-a-dozen or so a year at first, I think, but rather more as time developed, at which point a rot set in and amateur clubs began losing teams, as too few lads were left behind to keep established sides going, and – all too regularly – players who had joined Scholarships and had not been subsequently signed on tended not to return to their original clubs because of the so-called `failure factor’.

It’s been a major problem for quite some time. Hopefully what I’m hearing has substance, and the Scholarships will be ditched – or at least retained as originally envisaged, as training sessions, nothing more and nothing less.

The Scholarships issue became serious at around the same time as another development caught my attention, this time in the Women’s game. Now, as I pen these notes I’m conscious that Women’s Rugby League is currently vibrant, there’s no question about that, and rightly so. I‘ve been a keen fan of Women’s RL since seeing Lancashire play Yorkshire before over 50,000 appreciative spectators during a Premiership Final double-header at Old Trafford in the 1980s, and more people are aware of the quality on offer these days than ever.

I still worry about how the RFL’s clubs first embraced Women’s rugby though; invariably by simply trawling – and wrecking – long-established local clubs, leaving experienced volunteers walking away, embittered.

My long-standing worry has been that professional clubs suddenly grew interested in Women’s Rugby League when they became aware of available funding opportunities. I’m told that any such cash procured is `ring-fenced’. If that’s the case, then fine, but only more or less. For example, I’m getting word that one club in the winter-based Women’s Amateur Rugby League Association, which predates the RFL’s competitions by decades, is about to have ten players `pulled out’ by the local (and, by comparison, recently formed) professional club. What exactly is that about? If the boot was on the other foot there would be hell to play, and rightly so – more, perhaps, to follow on this particular saga.

Much better news on Women’s Rugby League is the imminent launch of the anticipated `Life with the Lionesses’ initiative, which is the brainchild of the tremendous Julia Lee.

Fuller details are given elsewhere in this week’s League Express, and I can’t wait to get along to the Heritage Centre in Huddersfield to bask in the deeds of – for example – the Great Britain Lionesses side that, managed by Jackie Sheldon and Roland Davis, flew home from Australia in 1996 with the inaugural Women’s Ashes in the baggage compartment. The likes of Brenda Dobek and Lisa McIntosh, who were arch-enemies at club level, came together gloriously in their country’s cause over a heady spell of five years or so, including in 2000 when they reached the World Cup Final. If young hopefuls cannot be inspired by their achievements, I doubt whether they’ll be motivated by anything.

Talking of inspirational figures, I was delighted to hear that Malcolm Waite, who has served East Leeds superbly for around 40 years, was recognised lately by Leeds City Council, which presented him with its `Unsung Hero’ award.

Malcolm has done tremendous work for his local community for decades and has taken the rough with the smooth (notably winning the National Conference Cup the other week) with equal aplomb.

Easts struggled a tad in the NCL for a few years, having become the victims of their own success in producing a host of top players for the professional game. Mal would call me on Saturday evenings with details of yet another defeat, but he invariably reflected that losing players to Leeds Rhinos and the like was as satisfying as winning a trophy.

Congratulations to Mal on his award. East Leeds are holding a testimonial dinner on Saturday 11 December, details of which are given in today’s issue. Get to it if you can, to help honour a top man who sums up what’s best in amateur Rugby League.

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