13th January 2019, 12:59 | rfl
Andy Burnham hosted the RFL President’s Ball in Leeds this weekend – marking the halfway point of a year in which he is enjoying the chance to focus on some of Rugby League’s unsung heroes.
The President’s Ball is an annual highlight for the game, a glittering black-tie function at the historic Queens Hotel in City Square, at which the great and good have the opportunity to celebrate the good work of charities such as the Steve Prescott Foundation, and the RFL Benevolent Fund.
More than £20,000 was raised for the Benevolent Fund on Saturday night, in addition to a cheque for £48,000 which was presented to the Fund by the Steve Prescott Foundation.
Burnham’s Presidency will continue to feature a similar combination of ceremony and grassroots.
Since succeeding Air Commodore Dean Andrew OBE last July, he has presented the Challenge Cup to Remi Casty at Wembley, and laid a wreath in remembrance of the Fallen Heroes of the Northern Union before the Elland Road Test on Armistice Day.
But the Mayor of Greater Manchester also picks out his leading role in the review of Youth Rugby League for teenagers, and the first-hand experience of playing Masters Rugby League for Golborne Parkside, as highlights of the last six months.
“One of the things I really wanted to do coming into this role was shine a light on the grassroots game,” explained Burnham, who was Labour MP for Leigh from 2001-17 before his election as Manchester’s first Mayor.
“My son played the game a few years ago, so I got to see the community game in all its glory – and I really mean that, because these community clubs are so important, not only for talent production in Rugby League, but in terms of producing strong young characters, and the contribution they make to their communities.
“I think the game at that level is in good health – we’ll see that in the First Round of the Challenge Cup later this month, when the community clubs get their weekend in the spotlight. I’ve loved the BBC coverage of some of these games in recent years – clubs like Miners in Leigh, St Pats in Wigan, and loads of others have had the national spotlight shone on them, and this year it’s going to be Millom up in Cumbria playing Red Star Belgrade. It’s fair to say you wouldn’t see that fixture in any other sport!
“But there’s also a reality that those clubs need constant support. The Legacy Programme for the 2021 World Cup is going to provide more investment in facilities, and the 12-18s review is another part of seeing what we can do to strengthen the community game. I’m very passionate about that.
“Masters Rugby League is something else that’s made a big impact on me in these first six months. I played in a Festival at Crosfields in Warrington for Golborne Parkside, my local club, and it was a pretty amazing experience.
“Our team was made up of blokes in their 30s, 40s and 50s, but one of the teams we played against included an 80-year-old.
“That just wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. There was a view that once you’d got past your early 30s, you were pretty much done with the game. But now Masters has a great momentum that needs to be built upon – Rugby League’s version of Walking Football, which has been such a success.
“I think it’s something special – being there that day at Crosfields, with about 300 blokes of different ages, from all across the North – and it doesn’t have to be the North, or blokes. It’s opened up a new lease of life.
“I’ve got a few things in my mind for the six months left of my Presidency – Johnny Vegas has promised to show me the Thatto Heath Haka if we get some Masters going in St Helens, and Adam Hills wants to be involved as well after the enjoyment he’s had from disability Rugby League.”
And Burnham also gave his Presidential seal of approval to the decision to elect Tony Adams, the former Arsenal and England footballer, as his successor from July 2019 – in recognition of the strong links between the Sporting Chance charity he founded, and Rugby League’s commitment to mental health.
Finally, and for all those grassroots priorities, the Leyther in Burnham selected the game’s biggest night last October as another highlight – even if Wiganers might not agree with his description.
“To see Leigh effectively winning the Super League Grand Final, with two of Wigan’s tries from Dom Manfredi, a lad from Leigh Miners – I thought that was very fitting,” he told the audience at the President’s Ball.