Fears grow for grass-roots rugby league as players predicted to ‘drift away’
When Toronto Wolfpack trotted out to face the amateurs of Siddal on a rain-lashed Halifax hillside in February 2017, neither club could have had the faintest notion of the fates that were about to befall them.
Approaching four years after their first competitive match, the Wolfpack’s very existence is hanging by a thread after a majority of Super League clubs voted this week to deny them a return next season.
Meanwhile, Siddal are facing up to an uncertain future of a different kind as the grass-roots game counts the cost of the global pandemic, with a real threat to the pipeline which has consistently carried local young players all the way to the top.
This season’s truncated Super League season was sprinkled with Siddal alumni, including Wigan’s Morgan Smithies and Amir Borouh, and Tom Holroyd at Leeds, while Huddersfield Giants coach Luke Robinson continues to run a junior side at the club.
But chairman Martin Scrimshaw acknowledged the obvious financial implications of the shutdown somewhat pale against the challenge of convincing those at junior levels to retain their interest in the sport on the other side of the impending second shutdown.
Scrimshaw told the PA news agency: “Players tend to drift away when they can’t train. A lot of lads have played rugby all their lives but they might be finding other interests and question if they want to come back.
“The numbers have definitely declined over the years and we run fewer clubs than we did 10 years ago. It is so important that clubs like Siddal are there to help get young kids up to Super League level.”
The four-time National Conference League champions remain something of a model for grass-roots rugby league, running sides from under-six through to masters levels, and have recently set about installing a new hybrid pitch and floodlight system with assistance from Sport England.
With competitive, lower-level rugby league now effectively ruled out until around April next year, they will have to wait to return, but, for the Rugby Football League’s national clubs manager, John McMullen, the outlook is not necessarily uniformly bleak.
“From an RFL perspective it has been a very challenging time for the community game, because what we love to do is get kids and players on to pitches playing in games and competitions,” said McMullan.
“Some of the clubs we are speaking to are going through significant financial challenges. I’m comfortable that we won’t lose any of our major clubs, but there is bound to be an impact and things might not look the same as they have before.”
Meanwhile, Scrimshaw expressed sympathy for the plight of the Wolfpack, who came from behind to dredge up a 14-6 win in a match which would pave their way to what proved a fleeting top-level appearance.
“I think we have missed out on a massive opportunity,” said Scrimshaw. “If we want to make the game international and get more people interested, we should have given Toronto a chance. They have been a bit harshly treated, in my opinion.”