Talking Grassroots: The Finals Countdown

Talking Grassroots Rugby League with Phil Hodgson of League Express

There’s only one place to be on Saturday. Well, that’s not entirely true, but more of that later.

The Millennium Stadium, Post Office Road, Featherstone Rovers is hosting the National Conference League’s 2021 Finals day and I have to confess that I’m getting very excited about it.

The NCL’s management committee was faced with a host of problems when the nod was given by the government earlier this year for Rugby League and other sporting activity to resume.

High among them was the issue of travel restrictions, and the legal and moral implications, and the flagship league’s bosses opted in the circumstances to operate regional leagues this time.

That decision led naturally to further difficulties in that teams (and, more importantly, players) were being asked to face opponents of a higher standard than they were.

That was a real negative but, given the situation, it was largely an unavoidable one. A couple of sides fell by the wayside, although perhaps not entirely for that reason, and hopefully both will be back next year.

Conference bosses, possibly aware of that aspect, opted to offer three subsidiary knockout competitions to supplement the Championship play-offs themselves.

First-round losers in the Championship were invited to take part in the Shield, and two knockout cups were envisaged for teams that didn’t finish the regular campaign in the top two or three of their respective sections.

That gave everyone, no matter how hard the going in the league might become, something to look forward to towards the end of the summer.

The fact that only one of the two anticipated cups is going ahead, for want of numbers, suggests that quite a few clubs felt exhausted by the time September arrived, and that’s understandable. But others – or, more importantly, their players – have embraced the notion, and the result is that we have three tasty-looking matches to anticipate on Saturday. And two involve teams from St Helens to underline how very strong Rugby League is in that town following the Saints’ superb victory over equally magnificent Catalans Dragons in the weekend’s Betfred Super League Grand Final. Let’s hope a good number of St Helens’ fans, who will probably still be in highly buoyant mood, will get along to Featherstone to support their local amateur sides.

The main game this week is, of course, the Grand Final, in which Thatto Heath Crusaders and Wath Brow will face off at 2.00pm.

It’s slightly odd that this will be, timewise, the middle one of the three games to be played, but no matter – at least it’s taking place. And it’s gratifying for me personally to be able to write entirely positively for the first time about the NCL’s Grand Final.

It became a tradition, since the concept was introduced a couple of decades or so ago, for me to wish the team that had finished the top of the Premier Division, whoever that might have been, all the best in their bid to win the title itself. I took that stance because the Minor Premiers had headed the standings after each team had met every other side once at home and once away; that should have been the end of the matter as far as I was concerned, and play-offs should have been contested for another trophy entirely – certainly not the championship – in the same way as the Rugby Football League used to operate the Premiership in the 1980s, with hugely successful double-header finals at Old Trafford.

It’s entirely different this year, however, and play-offs are the only way to establish which is the season’s best team.

Happily, it’s impossible to slide a wafer between St Helens’ Thatto Heath, who are coached by the indefatigable duo of Neil Rigby and Mike Woods, and Wath Brow, who have been led for quite a while by the canny Ian Rooney. I anticipate a thriller – in fact the game could quite easily go to golden point, which is what happened in the last final, back in 2019, when it was Thatto’s misfortune to miss out.

And who did they miss out to? That side was West Hull, whose hopes of retaining the title were extinguished when they lost at Siddal in the first round of the play-offs.

A young Green & Golds outfit has, however, been steered to the Shield decider by the veteran coach Mark Hewitt, who is preparing for a meeting with Kells who, under Steve Kirkbride, are also a youthful side.

This game – the opener, just before noon – is an intriguing one and will offer a pointer to the futures of both sides, which look healthy indeed.

The same can be said of Clock Face Miners (the other team from St Helens featuring on the big stage) and East Leeds, who meet in the Cup Final, which will bring the curtain down on what is certain to be an entertaining day at a ground that suits Rugby League so well.

Both sides had very good seasons, despite the fact that they were unable to make the play-offs, and it’s another clash that’s impossible to call.

If it’s tight, though, I wonder whether Easts’ experiences of golden point football (including bizarrely, at half-time in a league game against Oulton at a stage when four-pointer fixtures came into play, with the result in each half counting more than the actual game score) might tell.

Both sides can play what you might call traditional Rugby League – and there’s no harm in that – and are very well coached by, respectively, Robert `Two Bobs’ Roberts (Easts) and Mark Costello (Clock Face). Don’t fall into the trap on Saturday of thinking that the action will be over after the Grand Final and be tempted to float off; the Cup Final promises to offer thrills and spills aplenty.

Back, meanwhile, to my opening couple of paragraphs. There’s something special taking place elsewhere on Saturday for sure, over in Wrexham, where Wales will meet Ireland at Glyndwr University. Not to be missed if you’re in that neck of the woods. And, before all that, the Student Rugby League launches on Wednesday, two or three weeks after the College Leagues kicked off.

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