When Maurice Lindsay became chief executive of the RFL in 1992, he set out his vision for the introduction of Super League.

And that dream became reality on 29 March 1996, when Paris Saint Germain faced Sheffield in front of a crowd of nearly 18,000 spectators.

The biggest change of course was the move from winter rugby to summer and the perceived benefits this would bring.

The second and third tier competitions made the switch to summer with Super League, while the four divisions that make up the National Conference League would eventually follow suit in 2012.

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Most junior leagues now operate in the warmer months too, while below the NCL are the Yorkshire, North West and other regional competitions, each consisting of five or six divisions, all playing in summer.

What that effectively means is the UK’s best divisions all play summer rugby and Rugby League in this country is recognised as a summer sport.

This isn’t a column calling for the return of winter rugby – far from it – but, on the day that the Yorkshire Cup Final was contested, and at the half-way point of the latest Pennine League season, there seems no better time to discuss winter’s ongoing role in our sport.

Is it hindering progress at grassroots level? Is it just a bunch of dinosaurs sticking two fingers up at the establishment?

I actually have something of a stake in this conversation as I started the season as a Pennine League player and was even in attendance at this season’s league planning committee meeting, held at Elland WMC.

At the meeting, Sue Taylor and the rest of the Pennine committee delivered their vision for the 2019/20 campaign to the assembled delegation of existing and prospective member clubs.

The so-called ‘winter league’ continues to attract players of a very high calibre, which the committee were proud to remind us of.

I myself found myself training and playing alongside lads who’d graced the very top of the NCL, and some even higher.

At least two had travelled to play against Toronto in recent seasons and there were more than a couple who’d joined us fresh from the books of Super League academies.

So, what on earth had convinced them to pull on a pair of boots, for no money, and in the darkest, coldest, wettest, muddiest months of the year?

Though I now write this column as an ex-player, owing to work commitments, I’m still able to reflect on away trips, this season alone, to Almondbury, Normanton and Illingworth.

And in previous winter campaigns I’ve played at Fryston, West Leeds, Queensbury, Birkenshaw and Greetland, among others.

I don’t mention these names to celebrate my career exploits (trust me, it’d be a short column); instead each reminds me of the awful pitches and ramshackle facilities I’ve experienced as a ‘winter league’ player.

And when you add the rubbish facilities and frankly dangerous playing surfaces to the winter package, you do start to question the argument for any sort of rugby to be played outside of summer.

But in reality, the biggest factor in the continuing demand for winter rugby is a word I’ve already used, and ironically the reason I couldn’t carry on playing, grassroots Rugby League’s very own ‘big C’ – commitment.

Saturdays in the summer seem perfect for Rugby League, and for many clubs and their players they are – sunshine, daylight, dry fields and shirt sleeves on the touchlines.

But to other players, Saturdays in the summer mean many other things too – stag dos, race days and weddings are the big three – and the unfortunate truth is that many lads would rather spend their days off work with a pint in their hand instead of a rugby ball under their arm.

Sure, there are stag dos, race days and weddings over the winter too, and the small matter of Christmas, but those social dates are far more infrequent when the weather’s colder and the result, ultimately, is more free afternoons to play Rugby League.

In simple terms, many players prefer playing over the winter because there are fewer things competing for their time than in the summer.

A perfect example of that is my old club, Mirfield, who are offering opportunities to a number of players who’d begged, stolen and borrowed time from their calendars to play NCL rugby over the summer.

These are the lads who’d otherwise be just kicking weights around a gym until February rolls round again.

But then there’s also the lads who’d packed in the sport completely because their old coaches fell out with them for ditching game days to get drunk with their mates.

The stubborn defiance of the Pennine League committee and their single-handed and single-minded preservation of winter rugby means these lads are still playing, paying subs and practising their passion for the sport.

To many, the winter versus summer debate still hasn’t been settled and many NCL chairmen will tell you that things haven’t been the same since we ditched the frozen January afternoons, and some even want us to go back.

But, to me, the argument isn’t an argument at all, and we certainly shouldn’t feel compelled to pick one side over the other.

Let’s recognise and embrace the undoubted benefits that summer rugby has brought our sport, but let’s not lose sight of the power of winter rugby to help a lad fall in love with the game again.

The healthy crowd packed into the LD Nutrition Stadium this afternoon, who saw Mirfield edge a thriller against Drighlington to lift the Yorkshire Cup, and my old team-mates out celebrating their win as I write this will thank you for not writing winter rugby’s obituary just yet.

 

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