The new initiatives keeping past players involved in Rugby League

A new initiative from RL Cares aims to breathe new life into club past players associations and bring more heroes of yesteryear back into the rugby league fold.

TO paraphrase singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, there really is power in a reunion. Just ask the hundreds of former players who continue to reconnect with the sport we all love through their involvement in the activities of past players’ associations.  

It is a sad fact that, with few exceptions, every rugby league player will spend more of their life on the outside looking in: playing careers are all too brief and sporting retirements last a very long time. 

Once that last game has been played, time quickly moves on and the past becomes a foreign country: they do things differently there. A move into coaching can delay the inevitable but eventually there will be a parting of the ways and, like the players who had retired before them, that separation is not always in the most amenable circumstances. 

Lucky indeed is the player who is able to walk away entirely on his or her own terms: for many, the severance comes after they are told their contract is not being renewed, or they are offered reduced terms which reflect their age and fitness levels. For others, a cruel injury takes their decision away from them. 

“Very few players are carried into retirement on the shoulders of their team-mates at the end of a Grand Final win,” says Colin Maskill, the former Wakefield, Leeds, Castleford and Doncaster hooker who is working with the independent charity Rugby League Cares on projects designed to re-engage retired players with the game. 

“Most players leave with a bad taste in their mouth, and many are lost to the game forever. That’s such a great shame, not just because they take a lot of knowledge and passion with them, but also because they miss out on the opportunities to re-experience the camaraderie and friendships they enjoyed during their careers.

“It doesn’t have to be that way, and I’m delighted to be working with RL Cares to work out what can be done to keep more retired players within the rugby league family, and to re-engage with those who for whatever reason have been forgotten about.” 

For much of the last 20 years, Maskill has been an active member of the past players association at Leeds, a club which has always recognised the value of involving former heroes in its activities, both on matchdays and at other events. 

Clubs like Hull FC and Hull KR also have long-standing good relationships with their past players associations (PPAs), and many others are thriving, sometimes despite the attitudes of club officials.

Thankfully, the sport is moving on from the days when retired players were regarded as a burden, be that financial or logistical, and there is now widespread recognition of the mutual benefits of maintaining good working and social contact. 

“Some PPAs will just meet occasionally at a chosen game once a year, others will have regular reunion dinners and organise golf days, but some clubs still don’t have active PPAs and that’s something we hope to address,” added Maskill. 

“A good example of a club that’s doing the right thing is Wakefield Trinity. Driven by the enthusiasm of Lee Robinson, the club’s former physio, and the dedication of ex-players like Gary Spencer, they’ve put together an active programme that is seeing more and more retirees coming back.”

Brothers Graham and Martin Law, who have both become personal trainers since retirement, have recently begun a Saturday morning gym club for ex-Wakefield players, who meet up regularly for a gentle workout, coffee and bacon butties. The sessions release a palpable level of energy from participants, many of whom are now rekindling lost friendships and overcoming any sense of social isolation. 

One of the great successes of the last 12 months has been a new ‘walking group’ established by the St Helens past players association and led by the club’s former international scrum-half Neil Holding. 

The group meets every two weeks for a short walk and sees retired players from many different generations come together to chat while they take on a gentle ramble at their own pace. Followed by the important coffee and cake.

“It’s hard to explain how it makes me feel to watch the lads chatting away to each other and enjoying the walk,” said Holding. “Men often don’t like talking about their problems with their wives and partners and we’re seeing some of them open up to each other, getting things off their chest and lending a listening ear, often to team-mates they haven’t met for years. 

“Some of older players may have memory problems or dementia but the walk helps them turn back the clock. You can see them come alive again.

“We get lots of lifelong supporters on the walks with us, which is great for everyone: the old players appreciate the recognition, and the fans get to listen to stories told first hand by some of their heroes from 30, 40 sometime 50 years ago.” 

The power of a reunion is strongest at the annual Rugby League Lions Association annual luncheon, which has grown to become a hugely successful event which brings together players and staff selected by Great Britain, England and (in 1975) Wales for tours or tournaments Down Under. 

“The Lions lunch is a great example of why past players associations are so important,” added Maskill. “The Lions make a very valid point that all their members, from the captain of the first tour in 1910 to the modern-day players, all share the same rich thread of DNA, and the same very much applies at club level.”

As part of its responsibility for delivering player welfare to the full-time and part-time game, RL Cares last year launched a new Brain Health Fund, one objective of which is to support older players suffering from neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Club PPAs can play an important role in delivering that support – or highlighting specific need for support – which is one of the drivers behind the appointment of Maskill. 

RL Cares Transition Manager Francis Stephenson said: “We will shortly be circulating a questionnaire to all the PPAs to determine how active they are, how active they’d like to be and what help, if any, they need from us. 

“As a former player I know how rewarding it is to meet up with old team-mates, and we are committed to doing all we can to ensure as many ex-players as possible get the opportunity to enjoy the many benefits that come with being an active member of the rugby league family.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)

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