Weathering the storm

By Phil Hodgson, League Express Grassroots Rugby League correspondent

Habit has it that in the last League Express of the year I reflect on the highs and lows of the previous twelve months.

The focus would normally be on successes and otherwise on the pitch – and quite right too, as what happens on the field of play is what sport is ultimately all about.

Not so in this hopefully unique year, though. There’s been precious little action at amateur level since March, other than some activity during the aborted pilot project in the autumn, although hopefully lessons will have been learned from that initiative.

With the support of government, both central and local, together with the RFL and to a degree BARLA, all our clubs have, to the best of my knowledge, survived – although Thornhill Trojans threw up some very pertinent warning signals a few weeks ago on behalf of all grass roots outfits – and my fervent wish is that each and every one goes into the New Year, and potential action in February, in something approaching good health.

Whether teams and players will be able to enjoy their Rugby League again in a few weeks’ time remains to be seen. I’ve a vivid memory of pundits stating during coverage of the Coral Challenge Cup Final how the fact that the match was being played in an empty stadium would be seen, historically, as unique. I recall thinking, “I hope they’re not speaking too soon,” and it may yet – awful thought this – turn out that they were.

The 2021 Challenge Cup has already been affected by the absence of amateur entrants, which is a great shame but unavoidable. As the RFL rightly ventured when I contacted them last week, it’s not really possible for grass roots teams, which don’t even know as yet whether they’ll be playing at all in the fairly near future, to be back in action for the early rounds. And that’s not even taking into account issues of travel between tiers, and the testing of players.

A thread has been broken, albeit one that can easily be repaired, but it’s a shame that amateur players won’t have the chance in 2021 to take on and potentially beat their professional counterparts. Giant-killing feats are integral to any sport than aspires to be healthy, even if the performances that stay uppermost in my mind are ones that ended in defeat, in each case involving Pilkington Recs, who took Wigan and Castleford close in successive seasons in the early 1970s, each time before very big crowds. It’s hard to imagine an amateur team going anywhere as close to a Super League side in the modern era – full time professionals are simply too bulked up – which, to my mind, isn’t really a step forward.

An undoubtedly big step forward, however, is the announcement that Wakefield Trinity are launching a Wheelchair team. That’s very good news indeed; Wheelchair Rugby League is growing apace and I imagine that the World Cup – let’s hope it goes ahead – will provide a further massive boost to an important and expanding section of the sport.

The Women’s (and, for that matter, Men’s) versions should also benefit, of course, and that’s quite apart from the cash windfalls many organisations have already received over the last couple of years from various World Cup grants. There are times when it’s possible to thrive, or at least prosper, despite not playing. Thanks to World Cup chief Jon Dutton and his colleagues the last few months has been one such period.

With people like that around, not to mention very capable staff at the RFL, who have battled impressively with so many twists and turns, and similarly wholly motivated folk at our clubs, amateur Rugby League is well placed to weather the ongoing storm; one which from its early stages has sadly claimed the lives of a number of grass roots stalwarts who will be very much in my thoughts on New Year’s Eve.

Season’s greetings, and a hopefully happier New Year, to all our readers.

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