Year of Covid-19 frustration ends for Batley Bulldogs and Dewsbury Rams as rugby league returns to Mount Pleasant

CORONAVIRUS was beginning to cast its malevolent shadow when Batley took to the pitch to face Toulouse Olympique in the south of France last March, but nobody expected it would be a day short of a year before Bulldogs played again.

WELCOME RETURN: Batley Bulldogs and Dewsbury Rams take part in a pre-season friendly at Mount Pleasant. Picture: Bruce Fitzgerald

The past 12 months have been no less frustrating for Dewsbury Rams who endured a 51-week layoff between Challenge Cup defeat at Newcastle Thunder in what proved to be their final game of 2020 and Saturday’s pre-season derby at Mount Pleasant.

The sides returned to a much-changed landscape, with new rules – it was the first time either had played under the six-again law or without scrums – and no fans, but simply getting a match on was a considerable achievement under still very difficult circumstances.

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As one of only four of rugby league’s original venues still in use, Mount Pleasant has witnessed a lot over the years, but its initial game under Covid restrictions was a leap in the dark for all concerned.

BACK AT IT: Batley Bulldogs made a welcome return to Mount Pleasant when they took on Dewsbury Rams.

It takes a significant effort to stage any match in the current climate and for lower divisions clubs, run on a shoestring budget, the hurdles are considerable.

“I’ve never been so stressed before a game,” admitted Batley chief executive Paul Harrison as he supervised admission to the stadium, dependent on a mandatory temperature check and completion of a well-being questionnaire.

Extra changing room space had to be found and a demarcation zone set up to separate those granted access to ‘red’ areas in the ground – largely players, coaching staff and match officials – and everyone else.

Given such a logistical nightmare, simply getting the game on was an achievement, but Batley are among rugby league’s most admirable clubs.

Batley Bulldogs and Dewsbury Ramsgot some much-needed and overdue game time during their pre-season friendly at Mount Pleasant.

During the summer era Mount Pleasant has been transformed into one of the neater grounds outside Super League and Batley’s longevity in the second tier, on very limited resources, is nothing short of remarkable, so it was no surprise they rose to meet this particular challenge.

The see-saw nature of the game, during which the lead changed hands eight times, would have thrilled a full house, but with the gates locked, diehard fans had to be content with a live stream via the RFL’s Our League platforms.

An early bird fee of £4.95 made for good value, however, the £10 asked for bookings made on the day was steep and will have deterred casual spectators.

“It is disappointing having no fans here, but I know a lot of people streamed the game,” said Bulldogs coach Craig Lingard.

Players and officials from Batley Bulldogs and Dewsbury Rams, pictured during Saturday's pre-season friendly at Mount Pleasant.

“We want to get people back in the routine of watching rugby on a weekend again.

“It is so easy to get out of that routine, so I think if we can get these games streamed every week and get people watching and build that excitement up for when fans can come back in, it is going to be great, hopefully, for the game.

“With a bit of luck, attendances will be bigger than what they have been for the last few seasons.”

Strangely, both teams played better up the famous slope; the hosts leading 14-12 at the interval, but Dewsbury having the better of the second half to shade the result 22-20.

Bulldogs listed 24 players and Rams fielded 29 as coaches took the opportunity to look at all fit and available members of their squad.

After the long layoff and with so many interchanges, the quality of rugby on show was higher than anyone could have expected.

Both sides each put some smart moves together, Rams in particular scoring a couple of spectacular tries, but were most impressive on defence, especially considering contact in training was not permitted for a spell in pre-season.

Dewsbury coach Lee Greenwood was encouraged by the way his side handled an unfamiliar experience.

“You have got all your players split across different rooms, you can’t talk to them as one,” he pointed out.

“It is totally different, but it is better than not being involved.

“Obviously it would be good to get a crowd in, but we are doing what we are allowed to do and it was good to get a win in the end.

“I think we just shaded it.”

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