Rugby league's community clubs face fight for survival in lockdown

By Dave WoodsBBC rugby league correspondent
Thatto Heath's ground with fans waiting for the game to start
Facilities at clubs like Thatto Heath provide a hub for the community - be it players, volunteers or first-aiders

Many of rugby league's amateur clubs could be facing a fight for survival because of the unique impact Covid-19 has had on the community game.

Because of the way the seasons run, income has "fallen off the edge of a cliff" after more than a year without matches.

And club volunteers in some of the country's most deprived communities fear it could be a devastating blow to the health and welfare of a generation of youngsters, particularly across the north of England heartlands.

A potential "lasting legacy of heartache".

"The timing of the pandemic could not have been worse for community rugby league," Mike Denning, chairman of St Helens-based Thatto Heath Crusaders, who play in the National Conference League told BBC Sport.

"As a sport we put as much energy in as any other sport. But because of our season - we start in February or March and run through to October - the lockdown couldn't have come at a worse time.

"We were locked down after playing just one game in 2020. Everything stopped."

He continued: "Cricket didn't do as badly, they had a truncated season. Football and rugby union were nearly at the end of their season, so they could put a bit of wool on their backs.

"But we had come from a season that ended the previous October and didn't really start again. That's what differentiates us from other sports. We still have electricity bills, gas bills, insurance and rent to pay, but the income had just fallen off the edge of the cliff.

"I don't want to scaremonger, but the reality is that, without help, some clubs will fold."

Vital community role

Thatto Heath's brass band plays
Thatto Heath's success as a community benefit has also seen success on the pitch, as they have welcomed professional teams, like Dewsbury, to their ground in the Challenge Cup

The recent Dividend Survey showed rugby league is worth more than £185m to the country, with every £1 spent by community clubs and foundations generating a social return of £4.08.

A large number of the game's amateur clubs play a major role in the communities they serve, helping to tackle social issues.

And the volunteers that run those clubs worry that if they are forced to the wall, that will have devastating consequences for the wider society.

"We're in an area of high deprivation and when Sport England gave us (Thatto) a grant, we came together to build a super club," says Denning.

"We were effectively a pub team that's grown to having 500 members. We're recognised for what we do to combine communities, working in an area of high unemployment and in tackling obesity and issues like that.

"Generally, rugby league is played in more deprived areas and doesn't have those affluent people around them who can help out.

"What's going to happen when we're allowed to return to play? How will we be able to afford to come back? And if clubs can't come back the wider consequences will be huge."

'There are eight-year-olds with depression'

Kevin Brown playing for England
Kevin Brown, like all his England teammates, started out in amateur rugby - but he realises the community game is for all, not just those aspiring professionals

Former England World Cup star and current Salford player Kevin Brown has added his voice to a growing campaign for the government to step in to directly help rugby league's community game.

He fears that if clubs go out of business, many youngsters will suffer life-changing circumstances, with their mental and physical health affected.

Brown played for a number of amateur clubs growing up, including Thatto Heath. And his eight-year-old son, Harry, turns out for the Orrell St James club in Wigan.

"I'm lucky to be paid to play rugby league, but when I've been a coach or helped out at a community club, it's completely different." said Brown.

"You realise that there are kids who aren't necessarily great rugby players, or aspiring to play in the Super League. Lots of them are just going there because it's a release from their lives.

"We have 30 kids (at Orrell St James) and it's like a massive family. But I'm hearing stories now of kids struggling, kids who are eight years old who have depression and anxiety. It's gone from boredom to actual depression.

"It would be a disaster if clubs started to fold and these kids never got the chance to go back and ended up in a routine that wasn't productive for their best lives - having lots of friends, being part of a community, exercising and being healthy."

Brown added: "Around here rugby league is what people look forward to. They've missed it, even the parents who coach, help out or act as first-aiders. They've missed it more than the pubs and the restaurants.

"Without these clubs, there is going to be a lasting legacy of heartache."

Communities might slip through the cracks

Thatto Heath
The grassroots game is the lifeblood of rugby league, spreading its gospel and providing a talent pool

At Thatto Heath, Denning worries that government funding might not recognise the work local clubs are doing, and believes helping them survive could prevent an escalation of social problems in the future.

"We're getting people into the mindset of training twice a week and playing at the weekend. We also do community building - the message is you're always welcome here, there's food on the table," said Denning.

"If you suddenly stop all of that? Well, we'd be living with that for years. It's immeasurable.

"Rugby league has done so many great things - it's been praised for its diversity and so many other aspects. But I don't think that's recognised when it matters.

"At this club we got a Queens Award for volunteers, which was recognition for how we volunteer in the community.

"As a sport we're in some really tough areas and money needs to be going to those areas. A lot of people have worked really hard to get rugby league to where it is.

"Governments haven't got a bottomless pit, but I think they need to be seen to be fair. We've got a massive part to play."

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