Talking Grassroots: Time to say thanks

Talking Grassroots with Phil Hodgson of League Express

The 2021 amateur season is now drawing to a close and I think everyone involved – players, coaches, administrators and volunteers, from club to league level and not forgetting the folk at the Rugby Football League – deserve great credit for providing everyone with such enjoyable fare over the last few months.

It’s been tricky, that’s for sure, with entirely necessary Covid-19 protocols hanging over everyone and rules tweaked – particularly regarding scrums – as a result.

But at least there’s been plenty of Rugby League for everyone, including spectators, to celebrate, and for that we should all be grateful.

Thanks, especially, should go (as they should every year, when I come to think about it) to those sides that have struggled, but who have gallantly seen the season through. I’m thinking especially of those in the National Conference League, which is of course operating on a regionalised basis this year. That was a good idea by the NCL’s management committee in my opinion, but an inevitable consequence of ditching divisions, even if only temporarily, is that some sides (and players) will experience a series of heavy defeats.

That’s been the case this year and I take my hat off to the players and coaches of those clubs that have somehow managed to stay the course. It’s not easy, I know, both from my personal experience as a player, and as a club official. I still have a vivid memory of how, quite a few years ago, my own team was struggling for results and went into the closing month or so with around nine league games to play. I was aghast when a senior player suggested – in front of the younger lads – that we should call a halt to our season, and I started rattling on (a bit pompously maybe) about “respecting the integrity of the competition” and about our obligations to those opponents who had already played at our place and who were entitled to a return visit, not least for bar takings and such like.

I was conscious, while I was prattling on, that it was all very well me issuing a clarion call to lads who were already pretty much beaten up, both physically and mentally, but at least I was able to draw on my own experiences as a player and tell them, in all honesty, that I would never ask them to do something I’d not done myself.

I was very impressed when those lads agreed to see the season through – and they very nearly did, with only one ‘blip’ as far as I can remember.

I imagine that there have been many similar conversations at several NCL clubs over the past few weeks – and the good news for those outfits is that the finishing tape is in sight, with this week’s games the last of the regular season.

Some will be glad to call it a day for 2021 – and few will blame them – while others will be keen to enter the knockout competitions that Conference bosses have imaginatively put on offer. And others will, of course, be targeting the title, with 16 teams heading into the play-offs. There’s plenty to enjoy for so many players, whether it’s more Rugby League or simply, and deservedly, putting their feet up for a while.

Youth and junior players, especially in Yorkshire, have decisions to make on that score. I chuntered the other week about how little action there can be, in the summer era, given school holidays.

Readers will see, elsewhere in this issue, how the Yorkshire Junior League, together with North West Youth, is now back with a bang. And they’ll also read how BARLA is inviting teams to take part in Yorkshire Cup competitions from Under 18s right through to Under 12s, with finals due to take place in late January.

I hope BARLA bosses are inundated with bumper entries; in fact that could indeed be the case as I expect that many young players will, after having had to kick their heels for the past 18 months or so, be very hungry for more Rugby League. The British Amateur Rugby League Association has ensured that, for Yorkshire lads at least, it’s available.

There’s also plenty of Rugby League action to enjoy this weekend of a slightly different nature. There’s the Masters National Festival on Saturday at Stanley Park, Blackpool, which has become a highlight of the calendar for so many (ahem) ‘senior’ players. An event not to be missed if you’re lucky enough to be over 35, I think. And on the same day, further inland at Chorley, the Panthers will take on Team Colostomy UK in support of a very worthy cause as yet more evidence is served that having a stoma need not prevent anyone from carrying on with a normal life. Enjoy the action – wherever you are!

Finally, National Conference League chiefs have wasted no time in dealing with the sorry incident at Milford eleven days ago, when referee Joe Stearne was assaulted by a home player.

That player has been named as Josh Nathaniel and the Conference has, as you’d expect, imposed a sine die suspension.

Interestingly, in what is very much a sign of these enlightened times, the RFL and its charity RL Cares is offering support not only to Stearne but also to Nathaniel who judging by the NCL’s press release, is full of remorse for an action which, it seems, was entirely out of character.

I touched on this unhappy incident in last week’s Talking Grass Roots and I can reveal that I ‘spiked’ a passage (thinking better of it, really) in which I reflected on a couple of similar episodes during my own playing days. I’m still holding it on the back burner as it could easily be misunderstood in the present climate. But they were certainly very different days in the 1970s and 1980s, in fact we could have been living on another planet insofar as prevailing attitudes to episodes such as this are concerned. And that is, overall, a good thing.

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