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How do you solve a problem like the Pennine League?

3 years ago By Jonathon Ward

FEATURE: Where else in rugby league would you find a Julie Andrews reference...

N.B All views expressed in this article are my own and not representative of the view of Odsal Sedbergh ARLFC (although does it really matter, the Pennine have hated us for years so what harm can a little piece of writing do!?)

So the curtain has come down on 2014/15 for Odsal Sedbergh and it’s safe to say the general consensus is that this has been the most embarrassingly run Pennine League season in living memory. Once the stomping ground of Yorkshire and Lancashire’s top amateur talent, with the best sides competing – and often winning – in both the BARLA National Cup and Challenge Cup, the PL has diluted down immensely over the past year and where the competition goes from here is anyone’s guess. Surely the only way is up.

Premier Problems
When things are going wrong at the top it is inevitably going to filter down through the rest of any organisation, and the state of the Pennine Premier Division has been nothing short of a laughing stock this season. The top league ended with just SIX sides in it. Pathetic. And even then the title was still a muck about. Queens initially ended first, but were later stripped of the title due to some player ineligibility issue in a previous fixture, so West Bowling were handed the title, thus landing them a spot in the 2016 Challenge Cup!

Pre-season Wibsey Warriors and Thornhill Trojans announced they were defecting to the Summer sport, reducing the standard at the top before the season had even begun. The major rift happened before Christmas when Drighlington were accepted into the 2015 National Conference and the PL took it upon themselves to evict Drig from the top tier with immediate effect. So the league attempted to beef out the top tier by shifting Halifax Irish, Illingworth, Brighouse and Queensbury up a division. All except Queeny objected to this and refused to partake in this mid-season shake up for various reasons and all were ejected from the PL. Although Illingworth’s second string were still allowed to play in the bottom tier – which beggared belief really, but that’s the Pennine League for you. Next to go were the much maligned Chequerfield Rangers (Pontefract Sports & Social to you and me) and before the season was out one of the pillars of the Pennine League also said enough was enough – Sharlston Rovers switched to Summer Rugby and said sayonara to their home for God knows how long. The Wakefield based side have always challenged for honours in this league, and have also won the Pennine Presidents Cup 5 times in the past 10 years (2006, 2008, 2009, 2013 & 2014), but even such a success story for such a prolonged period of time wasn’t enough to convince them to stick around in this sinking ship.

No scores for Sedbergh
This shake up affected Sedge as it meant the second tier was cut out entirely and ‘Championship One’ effectively became The Championship division – but of course changing the actual name of the division wasn’t something the Pennine powers that be thought to do – that would be far too confusing…

Now let’s remember the season before last. Sedbergh ended 4th out of 9 in Division 1 (then the fourth tier), so getting promoted up into Champ 1 seemed a bit ridiculous anyway. So when this restructure happened surely Sedge would drop back down to their level. OK we hadn’t been getting hammered week in week out, but it was still almost all defeats up til this point, except one hard fought 16-4 win against Boothtown Terriers. But no. At their request Boothtown wimped out and asked to drop down a league, but Sedge made no such request and just cracked on playing rugby. To end the year 7th out of the 11 was a great effort by everyone, considering the mass mess the season became.

So come March time with the season still in turmoil the Pennine bigwigs have re-shuffle numéro dos. This time they decided to regionalise the Champ 1 Division, to try and get sides to complete the season in time via less games. This meant for the second time Sedge’s one and only win (vs Brotherton) was chalked off, as these two sides were separated into the East and West leagues – although come full time of the season the league decided to just put the league back together as one anyway.

This move proved just as ineffective as Sedge played only one further fixture, a heavy loss at Morley, as other sides started dropping like flies. Both Newsome and King Cross Park forfeited 30-0 wins to Odsal during the closing stages of the campaign. In fact, if you go down all the sides who actually ended the 2014/15 Pennine Season out of the 83 competing teams 37 had points docked for unfulfilled fixtures! That’s 45% of the league. Surely such an alarming statistic is something the powers that be have to address in the close-season!?

Lop-Sided Leagues
A couple of years ago the Pennine pioneered a new divisional structure where each division had ten teams, and this format went down as far as possible with only Divs 6 and 7 having more. Everyone plays the same amount of the games and there should be some good competitive battles for promotion and relegation, yes?

Well here are the amount of teams in each league going down From Prem to 6 West for 2014/15: 6, 11, 11, 9, 7, 11, 9, 8, and 11. What can any of the teams even expect for next year? Kinsley Raiders ended bottom of Div 3, a 7 sided league, so surely can’t be relegated? And if so then the top 4 or 5 from the division below will need to go up in order to balance the numbers. And this kind of problem is going to happen all across the board.

And how exactly will the PL decide on who goes where. Who goes up a division or 2, who goes down or sideways in their mapping of next year’s Pennine League Divisional structure? The process is very simple – they make it up as they go along! Yes the PL send officials to games every week, but they are there to observe certain things about the sides or the officials, they aren’t on a scouting mission seeing the standards of each side and from that judging just where to put them in the league pyramid the following year. This is why you end up with runaway league leaders in some divisions and sides losing every week in others, they don’t have a clue about the playing capabilities of the vast majority of their members. The most blatant example of this was seen in the Pennine Supplementary Cup Quarter-Final tie of Selby Warriors vs Beeston Broncos. Selby have long been divisional rivals of Sedge in the top third of the PL pyramid, but for some unknown reason, potentially at the club’s request, they wanted dropping down into Div 4 (the 6th tier at the start of the campaign). They didn’t walk their league, but by being in the lower cup they played some sides miles below their standards and annihilated Beeston 100-4!! Scorelines like this are just plain wrong.

Between 2007 and 2011 Sedge spent 4 years in Pennine League Division Three (back when it was a nice simple Premier then Divs 1-6 set up) and to be honest they were 4 cracking years of competitive rugby league against sides who at that time were all on our level. Even in the odd years where we squared up against runaway league leaders we still managed to beat them, or at least draw (this home encounter against Thornhill Trojans comes to mind), the PL worked continuously this way. So where have they gone wrong?

The dinosaurs who run the Pennine are so out of touch with the amateur rugby league scene in this part of the world nowadays it really shouldn’t come as a shock to any of them or us about the current state of affairs the system finds itself in. The warning signs have been there for some time. They have just done naff all about it.

Unwanted Guests
A while ago players were contacted by the RFL over the phone and asked to complete a questionnaire about the state of amateur rugby in their local area. Now I don’t know how conclusive this study was or even if every single player was contacted, but I was. And the basic question they wanted to know was did you want to play Summer or Winter rugby. From this there was a massive paradigm shift towards Summer rugby, with the Pennine’s Winter RL sister the Yorkshire League folding. Some teams went Summer. Some wanted to stay Winter. So where did they apply for membership? The goold old Pennine League that’s where! All of a sudden the likes of Fryston, Upton and Queens rock into town with big, bad reputations. Anyone who has been involved in the game before and since can surely see that’s where the cracks in the pavement first appeared. It is alleged facing such sides is why Illingworth, Brighouse (who’s Open Age has now reportedly folded) and Fax Irish refused to play in the Premier Division. Such claims are mere speculation but I could see why those clubs wouldn’t want to pit their honest hard working players against teams of notorious thugs.

It wasn’t all bad, further down the league ladder the Yorkshire League imports saw a swarm of Wakefield sides join us and they seem to have brought a decent playing standard to the lower leagues. Kinsley, Wakefield City, Crofton Cougars and Eastmoor Dragons have all earned a promotion or Pennine Cup final appearance in their fledging Pennine years. Sherburn Bears were another YL immigrant and the Sedge seconds built up a friendly rivalry with these lads during their maiden Pennine League voyage a few years back.

Fallen Giants
One issue the Pennine have never seemed to resolve is what happens when a formerly successful side start to slide. It has happened at alarming frequency in the last decade or so and it eventually comes to a point where they either fold or all the players then decide to come back because they are playing at an “easy” standard and then romp home to an easy league title. Are these repeated falls from grace due to retiring players with no youth replacements? Or is it a more sinister reason, that these clubs have become disillusioned with life in the Pennine League.

In the late 2000’s Slaithwaite Saracens stormed up the leagues from Division 6 right to the Premier. At the end of 2014/15 they find themselves second from bottom of Division 5, with the prospect of plying their trade in the basement division next year. In 2010 Wortley Dragons kicked off in Division 2 having stormed to the Division 3 title the year before. This year will be their third consecutive relegation as Wortley’s league record in Div 5 read as Won 0 Drawn 1 Lost 19. They also could well be a basement dweller come September time.

Crigglestone/Dearne Valley/Emley Moor – the list goes on of sides who used to dominate and succeed in the upper echelons of the Pennine League, who are now struggling for numbers and results, slipping further and further towards inexistence.

The Ballotelli Argument
As the league officials do have a relatively back seat approach once the season gets underway there is a strong case to answer for the members themselves. Is it really fair to keep having a pop at the League?

That being said, they don’t make it easy for themselves with the constant stream of embarrassing cock-ups. In the 2007/08 season we were drawn at home to Ovenden in the Pennine Cup and for some reason had to get changed in the Sedbergh boxing club for this match. With us all kitted out ready to go Ovey called saying they had all broken down (or some other ridiculous excuse) so couldn’t make the game. Fair does. All the PL had to do was rearrange the fixture right? Wrong. The awarded the tie as an 18-0 win for them! Roll on a few years to when they instantly overturned two wins for the seconds at the end of last season. Both Illingworth and Cowling complained we had used too many first teamers, they complained, and the results were instantly taken away and 30-0 losses given against us! One very simple Pennine hearing later and the results were re-instated, but why should this circus of events have to keep happening!?

Then who can forget their ridiculous attempt to take a ‘Pennine League Select’ side to Serbia last year for a couple of test fixtures? A decent enough idea. But not when they announced it like 4 weeks before they wanted to jet out, somehow expecting the 17-20 players needed to be able to book the time off work and get £500 together in such a short period of time. Plus what if 20 lads had signed up, but were all prop forwards? Such a thing would take a long time to plan and they obviously just concocted it up on a whim without any real thought.

You do get the feeling the PL very much have a “Why always me?” attitude towards things going wrong in recent times, refusing to acknowledge when they have cocked up. And they could have a point - there may well be other factors behind the drastic decline.

Not too long ago Barnsley was a hot-bed of some Pennine League stalwarts. Grimethorpe, Dodworth and Hoyland Vikings were regular trips down the M1 for us old heads at Sedge, but all three have been wiped off the rugby league map with regards to Open Age sides. It couldn’t have been down to a lack of success as Hoyland won the Andrew Bennett Pennine Cup in 2006 and Dodworth were beaten finalists in 2010, but suddenly there is a gaping hole (Maybe they got a bit 'Brassed Off' with life in the Pennine!! Ey ey's possible anyone under 30 might not get that very witty joke..Google it guys and all will make sense). Is there a massive lack of youth funding towards rugby league in the area that is stopping the next generation of Open Age players donning the colours of these long established RL sides? Who knows. But there is definitely something wrong in South Yorkshire as there’s also been the disappearance of Rotherham Roosters, Sheffield Hillsborough Hawks and Sheffield Forgers from the Pennine League scene, whilst neighbouring Moorends Thorne Maurauders have drastically tumbled down the divisions. Only their Doncaster rivals Toll Bar seem to be thriving in recent times.

This trend for an entire area falling off the Pennine League wagon looks set to be happening in Huddersfield now. Along with the decline of Slaithwaite other Huddfudd sides St Joseph’s, Newsome Panthers, Emley Moor and Lindley Swifts all quit the season early, forfeiting games and having points docked. Underbank Rangers did storm to the Division Two title, but you never quite know what to expect with them lot from Holmfirth. They have had a few years in the middle divisions yo-yoing up and down, never quite finding their level. Then there’s also Meltham All Blacks who did well enough this year, but who is really going to sing from the rooftops about coming third in the bottom division?

You can see from the League’s perspective how they can say these factors are out of their control and they can only work with what they have. Surely they can’t be held accountable for this happening…? Maybe I am just a cynic, but for me it can’t just be down to a lack of player interest that Pennine rugby has gone for good in Barnsley and there are signs the same fate could befall Huddersfield in the not-too-distant future. It has to be a more deep-rooted poisonous reason.

Where next?
I haven’t got a clue. This Summer could make or break the Pennine League in my opinion. I can see what has been happening over the last decade, so why can’t the people who are in charge!? If something doesn’t drastically change in the next 12-24 months the Pennine League will cease to exist and there will not be any Winter rugby in Bradford whatsoever. That’s what I reckon. Watch this space.

Where next?

Pre-Season Training Important reminder to players
Pennine order second league re-shuffle ODSAL Sedbergh will complete their season in the Championship One West Division following yet another Pennine League re-shuffle.

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