Batley bid farewell to winter

Dave Hadfield tests opinion at the only ground used for 100 years of league
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The Independent Online
THIS afternoon, 100 years and a few weeks after it all began, the last winter season of professional rugby league in Britain will come to an end.

Of the grounds that hosted a match on 7 September 1895, the start of the league's first winter, only Batley's Mount Pleasant ground is in use. But from the hill that overlooks the little Yorkshire town and the sloping ground - previous uses include county cricket and keeping pigs - the future looks unclear.

The start of summer rugby and the Super League has already delivered one bitter blow to a club whose "Gallant Youths" - as they were known - were the first winners of the Challenge Cup in 1897. Their recent status is better summed up by the bonus offered to players for winning a tie a couple of seasons ago - a box of biscuits apiece.

Less than a year ago they had clinched the runners-up spot in the Second Division and were preparing for life in the First; work was starting on a new stand, which will officially be opened today before the match against Huddersfield.

That prize was denied them by the reorganisation of the game in preparation for Super League, but their chief executive, Richard Illingworth, does not believe in bemoaning the unfairness of fate: "We're where we are and we can't do much about it," he says with some of the bluntness often associated with the name Illingworth. "All we can do is to try to play our way out of it. And the way we're playing we won't get out for some time."

Illingworth admits to "mixed feelings" over the end of the winter game that will come with the full-time hooter this afternoon. "My own personal opinion is that if spectators aren't happy with it, we could do far worse than having the Super League in summer and the First and Second divisions going back to playing in winter. There are a lot of rugby league bloodnuts out there who would come to games in winter whether it was their team or not."

A return to the old timetable would not please the Salford forward whose hair became so matted with mud during one game that he had to hack off his fringe at half-time and only then could see the ball clearly enough to take a pass for the winning try.

Batley's coach, Jeff Grayshon, disagrees with his chief executive: "I've been 27 years playing and coaching and this is going to be a big change, but I think it's one for the better," he says. "I'm sorry to see the winter game go, because it's all I've known. But I'm looking forward to a faster- moving style of play."

A former Great Britain forward and the game's most durable player, Grayshon has played half a dozen games in the reserve side this season at the age of 46. "If I was just starting out now, I think I would welcome it," he says of the Super League and summer rugby. "Everyone says that Batley are a mud-loving team, but the way I've been trying to get them to play will go well with summer rugby."

Grayshon is less certain how Batley's spectators - around 1,300 of them on a good day - will respond to the change, as illustrated by his vignette of domestic life in what is still known, despite its decline, as the heavy woollen district.

"On a Sunday afternoon, if it's cold and wet, your wife might say 'Get yourself off to the rugby'. In summer, she's more likely to want to go off to the coast. Families are going to have a big say in whether or not it works."

Illingworth sees other potential pitfalls. "I can't see anything but a lot of bruised knees and elbows," he says, looking out at Mount Pleasant's playing surface, which has never been the most luxuriantly covered.

"I don't know how much grass we're going to have out there when we're playing through the growing season, but it will help when Bradford Park Avenue [who share the ground at present] move to their new ground."

Grayshon is already in training for the new challenge ahead, however. After 27 winters in the game, he quite likes the idea of finishing off with a game or two in the summer.