Dave Craven: Summer switch for amateurs needs to be given fair chance

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Queen Elizabeth Drive, Raider Park and Holderness Road may not instantly link you to Paris.

Indeed, as quirky as they are, when it comes to the home grounds of Normanton Knights, Oulton Raiders and Hull Dockers, very little at all conjures up images of anything French or fancy.

However, there is a definite parallel between them this weekend.

It is 16 years ago this month that the first Super League game kicked off between Paris St Germain and Sheffield Eagles at Charlety Stadium, marking the start of the professional game’s bold and brave switch from winter to summer rugby.

Tomorrow, after months of deliberating, canvassing, politicking and preparing, we will see a significant portion of the sport’s amateur arm also follow suit.

I say significant as it remains to be seen exactly how many.

The Rugby Football League, who have been advocating the change in order to align the running of the community game with its professional counterpart, claim 86 per cent of all players will be operating in a summer-based season from March to November.

That is an impressive number especially given there seems to have been plenty of opposition to the switch from diehards who wanted to stick with their winter tradition. Deja vu anyone?

The Pennine League, Yorkshire League and Hull & District League have all said ‘no’ to summer rugby as has the North West Counties League although they may yet be tempted.

But the National Conference League – the amateur game’s flagship competition, including Wakefield’s Normanton, Leeds-based Oulton, plus famous names such as Wigan St Patrick’s, Castleford Lock Lane and Thatto Heath – will begin a new era tomorrow and the hope is they will quickly advertise the merits of such a transition. RFL chief executive Nigel Wood reckons it is a “momentous occasion” for the sport as it stands on the verge of the most exciting chapter in its history. Big words, indeed.

However, while perhaps there is too much prominence attached to that statement, I have to agree this is a crucial step forward.

If England, as a nation, is ever going to compete with Australia and New Zealand for global honours, encouraging more youngsters to play is vital.

And that can only be aided by operating in largely summer months, especially for juniors.

Spirit, endeavour and courage are characteristics British players have never lacked. However, producing flair and invention when it mattered most, executing game-breaking incisive plays, has often been their downfall.

Being able to practise skills in decent conditions is a given for those in the southern hemisphere, unlike here.

Speaking from experience as an amateur player, being unable to train on a pitch on a cold and miserable December night, whether due to frost, rain or even just a need to protect the surface for a weekend’s fixture, was commonplace.

Often it would mean added work in a gym or maybe an extra road run instead, all good for building character and fitness.

But they are traits the British game has in abundance. When an amateur club has just two training sessions per week, if one is affected so drastically by weather conditions it means a player sees the time afforded to get his hands on a ball reduced by a massive 50 per cent.

Is it any wonder core skills are not always as good as people would hope?

Furthermore, how many are left disinterested, perhaps for life, by trudging around in the cold?

Summer rugby does not have all the answers but it needs to be given a chance.

Just as there were doubts in 1996 when Super League kicked off, there will be similar concerns with regards to this.

However, most people will agree summer rugby has improved the professional sport. Let us see if it can do the same for its just as important sibling.

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