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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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.