20 Glorious years of Army rugby league

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So, British Army rugby league.

Believe it or not, until 20 years ago, the playing of rugby league in the British armed forces was deemed to be illegal. That was until brave members of the armed forces such as Sean Fanning and Damien Clayton alongside the members of the all-party rugby league group that finally allowed the announcement in the Houses of Parliament that the ban on playing the game had been lifted.

And now, twenty years on, and over 20 years since I left the Army, after attending the Sephton memorial trophy and meeting Al Boyle and then Jamie Doig, I found myself taking my seat at the Royal Military academy, Sandhurst to celebrate what is fast becoming the must play game in the services. After meeting up with everyone at the pavilion, and seeing everyone taking the obligatory photo with the legend of the game that is Andy Gregory, we all set about catching up with old friends and making new ones.

Little known fact, Andy was one of the first Army RL coaches.

Little known fact, Andy was one of the first Army RL coaches.

It was due to my former service and the fact I’d written about inter services matches that Major General Richard Semple, president of Army RL had invited me to join over 200 guests from the Army, the RFL and the Political animals to celebrate the liberation of a game that we all loved.

There were two games to play before we headed for dinner, the first of which was supposed to be Combat support services v Combat Support, which in reality meant a mixture of Royal Engineers and Army vets v everyone else.

The Royal Engineers are by far and away the best Corps team in the Army, and at half time, to be told they were losing seemed to stir them into action, however the damage had already been done and the final score of 38-16 left a bitter taste in the mouths of the engineers.

Game two saw the Army VETS take on a team formed of those formed from the political world in the shape of The Political Animals who are a rugby league football club comprising Lords, current and former MPs and Councillors. As the Animals were short a couple of players, they brought in Ikram Butt, former Leeds, Featherstone and England player and founder of the British Asian Rugby association, as well as a couple of players from the Army who were looking just to pull on a shirt and get involved in a game of Masters rugby league. One member of the Animals was 74 years old, and moved with enough pace to outsmart players a lot younger than himself!

However, despite certain media outlets reporting of the game, the match was a close fought affair, with Chris Brown, one of the original Army players scoring for both sides in a 5-4 win for the army.

Greg Mulholland MP, member of the Political Animals RL team

Greg Mulholland MP, member of the Political Animals RL team

After the games, everyone headed back to the lines to get suited and booted to have pre dinner drinks in the Indian Army Memorial room and a photo to commemorate the day.

Once we had all imbibed a couple of gins, it was time to head into the dining room.

Accompanied by the band of the Royal Logistics Corps, we first had a briefing from Major Rich Naivalura (Nav to his friends) on the etiquette of the evening and no matter how much we drank, we were not to heckle the guest speakers or he would be escorting the offending party out of the room…Oddly, no one took him up on his escorting offer!

With the wine flowing, and the band playing in the background, over 200 of us started to swap old army tales of battles both on and off the fields of play. Of those who for whatever reason had been unable to make it for the event, and those lost in the course of battle. As Major General Semple said, Rugby League is the perfect Armed Forces sport. It requires team work, speed of thought and movement, courage and the ability to put others ahead of yourself when needed. As the port arrived, it was time to raise a glass to those who had gone before, and who were no longer with us, some of whom had been instrumental in getting the ban or playing the game in the armed forces overturned.

At the end of the meal, the Army presented the Animals with a framed Army RL shirt and the Animals presented the Army with one of their original playing shirts. The food was simply delicious. I don’t remember the Army Catering Corps ever making my lunch as a humble squaddie look and taste as good as this meal did.

Once the top table had adjourned to the bar, and the beer began to flow in earnest, Andy Gregory auctioned off a signed photo of him leading Great Britain into battle and a ball signed by the entire Wigan Warriors side from last season in aid of Soldiers League, the official charity of Army rugby league and raised a little over £300.

As I crossed the famous old parade ground in the company of Al Boyle and Mike Donnison, chair of Crosfields ARLFC, I could look back on a very memorable day of both rugby and dining. There are not many occasions when I can truly say I’ve been overawed, but finding a cannon next to the parade ground that was taken at Waterloo certainly ranks up there with the best of them. All the way through to the magnificent Indian dining room where we had pre dinner drinks, to the dining room itself, the whole day was inspiring, and reminded me why being a soldier was the best job I ever had.

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A very special thanks has to go out to Major Dave Groce, who had managed to organise the entire event whilst also getting ready to take up his new four year posting with his family in Canada. Dave, you will be a very hard act to follow. I’m sure everyone at Army Rugby League will join me in wishing you and your family happy trails in Canada and we hope that we get a replacement who is just as passionate and knowledgeable about the sport as you yourself are.

Animals MOM Chris Brown

Chris Brown. Army Stalwart & try scorer for both sides.

Chris Brown with Mullholland receiving MOM shirt

Chris, receiving his MOM prize.

Dave Groce

The man, the leg end, Dave Groce in full flight.

Animals in silence

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The Redeviloution is well underway

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With a little over a week to go before he would see the fruits from the first wave of his “Redeviloution”, Dr Marwan Koukash opened the doors of the A.J. Bell stadium to fans old and new to personally present shirts to the squad that he firmly believes are capable of finishing in the top four of Super League XIX and to show off his vision for the Salford of the future.

It was a chance for the fans to not only get up close and personal with the players, but to have a good look around the stadium, with pretty much all areas open to them, from the new gym, put in so that the squad didn’t have to travel to Leigh sports village through to the dressing rooms. Even setting foot on the hallowed turf was not forbidden!

Marwan is a man who divides opinion, and it’s something he revels in. To be fair to him, he’s made certain that Salford have probably had the lion’s share of press during the close season, be it his ideas on the salary cap, or how to move the sport in the UK forward without the perceived interference from Red Hall. One of the first things he said ahead of the shirt presentation was how he felt about undoubtedly his biggest signing, Brian Noble. When Noble said that he needed to bring in about four of five players, Marwan laughed and said in his own unique way, bloody hell mate, we need to only KEEP four or five.

When Marwan says that his relationship is not the usual one of chairman and coach, you believe him. This is a man who has fought tooth and nail to get to where he is today, and will fight just as hard for anyone in his corner as he will argue against anyone he feels is not.

As he says, a 300% increase in season ticket sales may not be as large a number as Saints, Warrington or Leeds, but he understands that the fans have had years of wait and see promises that have gone undelivered and that many will still pay on the day, and (hopefully) many more will buy once they start to see the fruits of his actions on and off the field paying dividends. He has already approached Red Hall to ask for an exemption on the cap to bring in a marquee player who he is confident will be a game changer.

He also says that on paper, there are not many better teams than Salford. Problem is, the game is played on grass and on Sunday, against Wakefield, Marwan started to see his dream become a reality.

Just…

I asked Brian Noble just before kick off if he was feeling nervous and he said he was probably more nervous than the players, but they had a job to do and were looking forward to getting it done. With that, Brian shot off to finish his pre match preparation.

As the time for kick off drew ever closer, it became clear that something special was happening at the A.J. Bell, because the press area was rammed with journalists from all forms of media. Not all of them hung about for the final whistle, but they will all have a copy of the team sheet and a souvenir programme to be able to tell their grandkids that they were there…

With all the preseason hype surrounding the club, it was no surprise to see the touchline full of photographers, TV cameras and the entire Koukash family all soaking up the atmosphere. The Red Devil parachute display team were due to arrive at 2.15pm, but were delayed in taking off from Manchester Airport by about 15 minutes, but when they did arrive (bedecked in Salford shirts!) they were greeted with cheers by the waiting crowd, who had just been told that due to crowd congestion outside the ground, kick off would be delayed by 10 minutes to allow everyone to safely get inside.

Once 3.10 arrived, the Devils and Wildcats took to the field and it was obvious that Salford were not about to let the visitors spoil the party, with Gareth Hock going over after five minutes to score his debut try for the club, easily converted by Jake Mullaney to give the Devils a 6-0 advantage.

Wakefield’s first spell of pressure culminated in a goal line drop out after eleven minutes, but that was pretty much it for the Wildcats, who seemed to be getting most of their advantages down the left hand side, where Salford looked a little shorthanded at times. It wasn’t until the twenty fifth minute, when England international Rangi Chase went over in a challenge and hurt his knee, forcing Noble into a few tactical changes that Salford really started to pile on the pressure with Harrison Hansen scoring after twenty eight minutes, again converted by Mullaney, to extend the lead to 12 nil.

Four minutes later, Andrew Dixon also went over, making it 3 unanswered tries, all converted to allow the devils an 18 point advantage at the break.

So far, so good. Brian Noble must have felt like taking the second half off! The only fly in the ointment was the man in the middle, Mr Child, who seemed to not understand the onside at the play of the ball rule meant that the players (on BOTH sides) must retreat 10 meters. To say he looked out of his depth was an understatement. The RFL needs to seriously look at the standard of refereeing in our game. Steve Ganson is now supposed to be in charge, but over the last 5 years, on average the standard of refereeing has slipped in my honest opinion.

After the break, Wakefield looked to really take the game back to Salford and break the hearts of the home crowd, who as Dr Koukash had said have had so many broken promises, he understands that they are wary of yet another promised golden dawn not becoming sunrise.

It took just five minutes for the fears of the crowd to look like coming true as Matt Ryan scored for the Wildcats, and just another four for them to go over again in the guise of Samoan international Pita Godinet, this time converted by Paul Sykes to reduce the deficit to 18-10, the Wakefield faithful really started to make their voice heard. Not to be outdone, the Salford fans found themselves in for a very nervy finish, once Ali Lauititi went over not too long after being held up over the line, a fact coach Agar disputed in the post-match press conference. To quote Richard, ‘I’ve never seen anyone stop Ali one-on-one that close to the line’. He said: ‘Well, he didn’t’.

With Sykes only managing to convert one of his chances, Agar could well rue not coming away with at least a point from the game, if not two.

As it was, Salford got their much anticipated season off to a winning, if nervy start. Coach Noble said post-match that Chase had a muscular knock and at that point it didn’t look too bad and that Junior Sau had tweaked his groin, but that they would both be hopefully fit for Salford’s next game, away to London.

One other thing from Richard Agar was his unhappiness at a four day turnabout for both Wakefield and Bradford, with them playing this Thursday in front of the Sky cameras. Given the lack of preparation he’s had with overseas players, it’s understandable to want to get some good recovery and preparation under their belt before the next match, but it appears that it’s out of both his and the RFL’s hands with Sky making the decision to show games Thursday and Friday, at least until the end of the football season…

Salford:

Mullaney (3/3 Conv), Johnson, Walton, Sa’u, Meli, Chase, Smith (MOM), Morley, Lee, Tasi, Hansen (T), Hock (T), Puletua

Replacements: Griffin, Dixon (T), McPherson, Howarth

Wakefield:

Mathers, Fox, Collis, Keinhorst, Lyne, Sykes (1/3 Conv), Godinet (T), Anderson, McShane, Smith, Lauititi (T), Kirmond, Washbrook

Replacements: Raleigh, Ryan (T), Tautai, Walshaw

Att: 7102 (Stadium record)

1/4 final 4 – Samoa v Fiji

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What a weekend of ¼ finals that turned into. From Friday and the Kiwi lads blowing the Bravehearts of Scotland away, England once again stuttering to a win over the French, through to Sunday’s bone crunching encounter between Samoa and Fiji, the 4 games could not have been more diverse.

No one ever expected to see Scotland and USA in this round, but they can hold their heads up high as despite being outclassed score wise, they more than held their own and refused to lie down and roll over for their more illustrious opposition.

I was lucky enough to be at the Samoa v Fiji game and I can attest that even from the press box, there were a few hits that made even hardened journalists wince in sympathy with the players on the pitch. It’s hard to think, but with only 700 miles separating these two nations, they have only played each other once before this RLWC2013 quarter final.

The pre match favourites with the bookies were Samoa, but there were two fully committed sets of players on that Warrington field. Believe it or not, I had worn sun glasses leaving Manchester in the car to take the short hop along the A57 to Warrington, but didn’t need them by the time I arrived! It was a dull grey drizzly afternoon at the Halliwell Jones, but even as I arrived 2 hours ahead of kick off, there were fans beginning to make their way into the ground and getting ready for the afternoons entertainment.

Once I’d grabbed a brew & a quick chat with the rest of the Team 13 media pack, I headed out to the stands to take a look around. After bumping into the Event 360 manager, Pete Nuttall, I noticed that one of the 2 clubs involved in the build-up game were my old friends from Crossfields RLFC, where the annual Tom Sephton memorial trophy takes place. Date for your diary, its back next season on the 28th June when the RLC team will attempt to wrest the trophy from the lads. If you’re in the North West, there is no other place to be on that day, as the ONLY Super League match is London v Widnes so no excuses for helping make the day an even bigger success than it has been in the past.

Crossfields Masters

Crossfields Masters

Anyway, kick off arrived and a crowd of over 12,000 began to roar on the local team of Samoa, turning this small area of Cheshire into the South Pacific for just over 80 minutes. You can hear what Matt Parish had to say about the people of Warrington post match by clicking on the link below.

It was an entertaining match, and to hear a group of proudly Fijian soldiers out chanted by a group of school kids from beginning to end, whilst egging them on to even louder chants just shows how great this game is and its strength in its communities.

Although Fiji looked like easy winners with the score line of 22-4, it was anything but easy. Aaron Groom, who went on to be named man of the match, and Wes Naiqama both scored first-half tries while Vitale Junior Roqica went over later in the game. Naiqama converted all three tries and kicked two penalties for the Fijians. Antonio Winterstein scored the only try for Samoa, who lost Penani Manumalealii to injury in a lack lustre display.

As Petero Civoniceva told the press post match, “its great feeling to know that potentially my last game will be played at (one of) two amazing venues. I feel I’ve been very blessed. I started this rugby league ride in 1998 and to be still here, I feel very proud of that. I’m really looking forward to enjoying the week, taking it all in with my team-mates.”

As for Samoa, they can be rightly proud of their campaign in this World Cup. They have played with grit and determination, winning new fans wherever they have been. The sight of what looked like 100 local kids doing a traditional Samoan dance at half time will make me smile as long as I live.

I know what I’m here for!

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Dr Koukash at a press conference

Dr Koukash at a press conference

Recent still from Game of Thrones

Recent still from Game of Thrones

Well, I’ve finally been told what I’m going to be doing at the World Cup. I am to be a social media journalist & venue media assistant for the duration of the tournament.

And that’s all I know at the moment. I went to chat the other week to Emma Neve about the recruitment process ahead of a piece for Forty-20 magazine, the first of a series chronicling my experience from start to finish of the event as a volunteer.

She told me that interviews had taken place with people from all over the world, even Aussies who are over here for the cup and want to help out in between games have applied and interviews even took place via Skype! There were about 1200 applications for 8oo positions, so it was imperative that they got the right people for the job.

It was initially expected that most would want to do perhaps 3 or 4 matches, but its been more like 7 games that people have said they are willing to be at.

In other news, Al Boyle of the Sephton Trophy has been in touch and is looking to me to help out with a bit of Forces RL feature writing, which I’m more than happy to do. I need to sit down with Al once he’s home & settled from his latest trip to Afghanistan & sort out the details. If you want to know more about the Lawson Cup, which is the Armed Forces Rugby League trophy, then follow this link: http://www.pitchero.com/clubs/armyrugbyleague/ where you can learn all about it.

So, Rugby League on telly.

We’ve come a long way since the BBC2 Television Floodlit Trophy in the 60’s. Now we have HD, 3D and even the ability to watch the game on your mobile phone from almost anywhere in the world!

First of all, let me say what Sky has done for the game in the summer era is amazing. Live games, play offs, Super League Supermen all fantastic. As someone who wasn’t too sure about Mondays, I can honestly say I’m a convert. Perhaps next season more for longer please Mr Murdoch? 3D is superb; the presenting style for Mondays was a real breath of fresh air as well. All the snazzy handovers, presenters on the pitch really adds to the entertainment for those not able to get to the game. As a former publican, I wish we’d had Super League Mondays back then. Rugby League was bigger for us in a little village outside Halifax than Football and we always had a great crowd of lads in for every game, probably just for the free pie & peas at ½ time, but either way, they were there also there to watch the match.

However…not everything Sky touches has turned to gold.

Boots N All is (let’s be honest) as dull as ditch water some weeks. I don’t know who produces it, but if Brian Noble thinks the on field game is being sanitised, he should watch B&A more often! Having watched the coverage of the game from other parts of the world, why can’t we have a fun filled hour that isn’t too stale, promotes the game in a fun way and allows more interaction with the fans? Perhaps a few competitions, ticket giveaways, phone in’s and stuff like that. I’m not asking for a 3 hour soccer AM style show, but an hour of fun, chat, competitions and something lighter than B&A has become.

What we need is a TV version of Forty-20 magazine. Super League back chat comes close, but its only 30 minutes and is well presented by Rodd Studd & Emu, sorry, Stevo along with a bewildering array of top quality journalists who all know the game inside out and are very opinionated on the subject.

Add 30 minutes to it and a few competitions & we might get more non RL fans tuning in to see what the fuss is about and then watching the games. We already know viewing figures are up for matches, but what about the rest of the shows?

Super League Supermen interviews are often moving, well presented and full of superb tales from the game, from the people who played it and again, those doing the interviews often make interviewees talk in a way they might not to someone outside of the game.

A good, honest down to earth programme that isn’t too stuffy, not afraid to tweak the noses of those in charge of the game and also with a few laughs and jokes as well. Barrie & Terry are underused, and they would make great hosts for the lighter side of the game. Remember the Varsity commentary we used to get from them? It was priceless.

We’ve always had a great rapport between players and fans. Why not use that openness to get right inside the game? A fan rep from each club in the studio, or, like the old fan zone for the football, commentating via the red button & then appearing with the pros to chat about the match.

Rugby League has never stood still. Perhaps we need something new from Sky to freshen up the way it’s seen by the casual fan & those who really love the sport for what it is.

The greatest game.

Lets make it a real “Super” League

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It’s not long now until the next rounds of franchises are set out for Super League. All the usual suspects will be applying, Featherstone Rovers, Halifax, Leigh and a host of others (hopefully), but if we’re to REALLY broaden the game, how about a Cumbrian club?

It’s always been a hotbed of the game and as much as I’m against clubs merging for the sake of merging, why not have a sole Cumbria club that uses the local talent and the resources of the established clubs, like Barrow and Workington to apply? Surely, if we can’t get our own areas of interest involved in the game at its elite level, we’ll struggle in places like Toulouse, The Midlands and the South West of the country? At its heart, we are a grass roots sport. OK, the fan base in the area may not be as big as a metropolis such as Leeds, but surely, a healthy, successful club in Cumbria will breed further rewards for the area in terms of producing more players like Rob Purdham who will go on to international honours in the future?

Rugby League NEEDS a strong Cumbrian club, be it One of the two I’ve mentioned, or a “Super Club” using them as a feeder to keep the grass roots healthy and the sport stocked with more and more talent.

OK, fans of other clubs will moan about travelling to away games, but let’s face it; we’re now a summer game, and who wouldn’t want to spend a couple of days in the area before or after a match? After all, it’s beautiful…

I know that even the mere mention of the dreaded M word will have people all over quoting history, heritage and Hull, to name but a couple of things, but if we are a modern game, then let’s make sure we look at the problems of the game in a modern way and although we keep our heritage alive (I hope Stevo finds a home for his stuff. It was a great way to spend time in Huddersfield and I hope the RFL will help him find that special somewhere), it shouldn’t stop us from looking ever forward.

Should it?

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Looking forward to later this year, I will once again be heading to Warrington for the Tom Sephton Memorial trophy (http://www.facebook.com/sephtonmemorialtrophy). Despite last year’s deluge of almost biblical proportions; it was a great day of family entertainment, good causes and rugby league. This year’s event is on the 29th June, to coincide with Armed Forces day and all money raised this year is going to the Royal British Legion and as per usual, there will be two outstanding matches being played.

For those who don’t know, Tom was an Infantry Soldier in The Mortar Platoon, The 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire) – 1 MERCIAN who tragically died in July 2010 as a result of the wounds he received in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 12. Tom came from Penketh, Warrington and was an outstanding sportsman. For many years he played rugby league for Crosfields and was a key and influential part of the 2006 Crosfields ARLFC Under 16’s squad that swept all before them, winning the Under 16’s North-West Counties League Championship and reaching the National Cup Semi-Final.

From this squad an impressive number of Tom’s team mates have gone on to achieve great things in their young rugby careers, playing professionally with Super League clubs, Widnes Vikings, Warrington Wolves, St Helens and Salford City Reds.

First up is the Army grudge match between rival regiments 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment (CHESHIRE) – 1 MERCIAN versus 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancasters Regiment – 1 LANCS, followed by a Crossfields ARLFC XIII Versus The Royal Engineers. Last year’s day was a roaring success and I for one will be making it a regular day out in my calendar.

For more info and to place an advert in the programme, check the link above for more details. Last year over £4000 was raised for SSAFA, I hope that this year, given better weather, they can beat that total by some way.