The sun is rising at last for grassroots rugby league

Talking Grassroots with Phil Hodgson of League Express

They say that the sun rises in the east.

They say it for a reason – because it’s a fact – and grassroots Rugby League in this country is following a similar path to half the planet (I think I’ve got that rightrt) as the sport emerges from the interminable Covid-19 lockdowns.

I was delighted to publish fixtures in this week’s issue of League Express (the first time I’ve been able to do that for quite a while) detailing a raft of friendlies this weekend in the Hull & District Youth League.

Some 16 fixtures are listed as amateur Rugby League again dips its toe in the water after last autumn’s pilot games at open age level.

I’m sure that the players, coaches and club administrators – not to mention parents – will be delighted to return to action after over a year’s unavoidable inertia.

The players, especially, can only benefit physically, psychologically and socially. Let’s hope that there are no setbacks on the Government’s roadmap and that the past year’s long lockdowns increasingly became little more than a distant, if dismal, memory.

I’m hearing, too, that a number of friendlies are scheduled in the North West Youth Leagues while, at Open Age level, we’re still waiting for fixtures for the National Conference League. I believe that the hold-up at present relates to League A, which involves Cumbrian sides (the NCL is, as we know, regionalising its competition this year as it wends its way through coronavirus issues).

The big kick-off for League A has been put back to 26 June (others leagues are launching on Saturday 22 May). Interest is certainly hotting up and I hope to be able to reveal opening fixtures very shortly.

Such information will be of immense interest to more than players, coaches and club administrators. A great strength of amateur Rugby League is that it’s a highly attractive spectator sport and, I think I’m correct in saying, has long attracted higher crowds that rugby union or soccer at the same levels.

Admittedly, the numbers of people watching grassroots matches has dipped somewhat since the move to summer – that’s the feedback I get, anyway – but I’d imagine that there are many folk out there who are very ready to get along to matches and shout on (or perhaps lambast) their favourites.

Herein, though, is a potential problem for the amateur game. The RFL advised clubs last Friday that fans cannot attend matches on private land. Little can be done, though, regarding people going about their business in public places, such as parks, which creates something of a conundrum. “Sporting events that are intended to attract spectators, or events that are likely to attract a significant number of spectators (e.g. large matches) should not take place in a public space, or on private land, until step three of the Government’s roadmap, which is to come into force no earlier than 17 May,” the Rugby League’s Kelly Barrett told clubs last week.

She was right to spell that out. However, I’ve been at many games that you might call low-level (indeed I’ve played in plenty, which probably went a long way to them being so described) when the crowds have been large. That could very well turn out to be the case when amateur Rugby League gets going again. I can easily imagine lower league fixtures being arranged on local park pitches and far more people turning up to watch than the Government or RFL would like. What do club officials do in that event? They could, perhaps, politely (albeit with no legal right at all) ask some or all spectators to leave. Chancy, that. Or they could feel it necessary to call an early halt to their match which, again, could have consequences.

We’re in uncharted territory, yet again, I think – it’s a potential development caused by amateur Rugby League being a fantastic spectator sport.

Meanwhile, I can reveal that National Conference League clubs will not be required to produce match-day programmes in 2021. I’m not sure why (and I’m not too much inclined to ‘push it’ with NCL bosses as I imagine that many already hard-pressed volunteers at club level will be wiping their brows in relief) but in a way it’s a bit of a shame. My own club produced one back in the day; we’d no compunction to (we weren’t in the NCL) but we did it for a number of reasons. One was to aid fund-raising, not so much from the price of the programmes themselves, at £1 each (although forty or fifty quid at each home game wasn’t to be sneezed at) but from adverts. The idea was that we’d sell 40, at £25 each per year, bringing in a grand per annum.

Programmes are also useful as documents of record, in addition to giving spectators something to read. And they can also be handy as a means of getting information to players who, if they say they aren’t aware of something or other, can then be told, “well it was in Saturday’s programme.” That’s a bit of a “watch-your-backs” reason for club administrators, admittedly, but no less useful for that.

In addition to those reasons, in my opinion having a match-day programme sends out a message that, as a club, you’re just that little bit more serious and, for want of a better word, professional in your approach, which is surely no bad thing at all.

It remains to be seen whether any NCL clubs will issue programmes this year. Coronavirus implications may, after all, come into play. But, hopefully, some will. Apart from anything else I’ve always enjoyed compiling and distributing my syndicated column early each week.

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