Unsung heroes of Rugby League’s return to action

John Holden (pictured) explains the role of Ground Safety Officers in ensuring that Rugby League stadiums are safe as they prepare for the eventual return of spectators.

You could be forgiven for thinking that with the season kicking off without any spectators it’s just two teams and a referee that turn up and it’s an easy day all round.

Of course that isn’t the case and with other essential persons such as the media, timekeepers and ground staff in the stadium, general safety procedures still apply but extra measures are required to combat the coronavirus.

This involves drawing up strict rules and segregating parts of the stadium to minimise contact, and so spreading of the virus, between different groups of people.

The rules need to be approved by the RFL and in most cases the local authority.

One of the people involved in drawing up these rules and making sure they are implemented is the stadium’s Ground Safety Officer (GSO). Normally the Ground Safety Officer would be more interested in making sure spectators can enjoy the game in safety and comfort rather than making sure people don’t stray into the wrong zone, but that’s the way things are at the moment.

Last season in the Super League only a few grounds were used for matches and often there were multiple fixtures creating a challenge for the host stadiums. But David Dowse, Ground Safety Officer at Emerald Headingley, says “It was a challenge but a great honour to be entrusted with delivering the behind-closed-doors games at Emerald Headingley. New working relationships were established as clubs came together with the authorities to deliver quality events in the strangest of environments. The Safety Officers pulled together and provided information that ensured double headers and even triple headers could be delivered on a number of consecutive days. Hopefully, the extensive work done by the staff across a range of venues will put the clubs in a great position to move forward quickly and efficiently as we move out of the pandemic.”

John Murphy, the Ground Safety Officer at St Helens, agrees.

“It was a very challenging season, with so many different protocols to follow relating to Covid-19, and a completely different process in preparing for the matches,” he says.

“Holding multiple matches at one venue has logistical problems ranging from the various accreditations required to providing suitable changing areas for the teams and match officials.

“The work that went into the staging of the matches was quite extensive and introduced practices which, prior to this, were unheard of. It did, however, introduce me to some good people who were all working towards the same goal of getting a safe and entertaining event aired for the fans to watch. I am looking forward to the next chapter now and the return of fans to our stadia.”

Outside Super League the majority of the Ground Safety Officers are employed on matchdays only, with many of them even carrying out the role on a voluntary basis because of their love of the game and their club.

Nevertheless, whether employed or volunteering, the responsibility and accountability is still the same. So, the challenges that John and David faced are now faced by other clubs as they prepare for the new season.

Fortunately, that experience and the experience of other Super League ground safety officers who hosted matches has been shared at meetings of the Rugby League Ground Safety Officers Association.

As the Association’s Chairman, DW Stadium’s Shaun Currie, says: “Membership provides the opportunity for GSOs to get together and share experiences. Unfortunately, at the moment getting together face to face isn’t possible, but we have been holding meetings via Zoom and the experience from those Super League clubs that did host matches has been invaluable to the rest of us.”

The RFL insists that Ground Safety Officers at all Super League, Championship and League 1 clubs are members of the Rugby League Ground Safety Officers Association. The Association, which was formed in 1997, will be celebrating its 25th anniversary next year.

John Holden is the Secretary of the Rugby League Ground Safety Officers Association and on matchdays is the Ground Safety Officer at Heywood Road in Sale, the home of the Swinton Lions.

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