No pain, no gain: a league lover's guide to the ageing process

The past is another country and not one for old men. But Dave Hadfield went back to the future for the Masters
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was an inspiring message on the front of the match-day programme at Saddleworth on Sunday 13 April – if, that was, you could find your reading glasses to study it.

"We do not stop playing because we grow old," it read. "We grow old because we stop playing."

It is a thought so beautiful that it should be set to music, but I grew up and grew old knowing one thing about rugby league: it is a young man's game. The oldest player in Super League is a mere 34. Even in the lowlier reaches of the amateur game you don't have to nudge 40 very hard before you find yourself routinely referred to as "granddad" or "that old bearded git."

Unlike rugby union, which has a thriving veterans scene, rugby league has always assumed that there is only one way of playing the game – and that is pretty much full on, with no compromises. It is, to steal the title of a recent cinematic blockbuster, No Country for Old Men.

Bev Risman, 70 years young and a Great Britain international back in 1968, begs to differ. The former Leigh and Leeds full-back was the oldest participant in the first Masters of Rugby League tournament and he lived to tell the tale.

"I intended to stay out there for a minute and keep out of the way," he says. "I found myself getting involved and stayed on for 10."

Masters rugby league employs a system that allows someone of Risman's seniority to enjoy something approximating to a proper game of rugby league. It is based on colour-coding the generations. If you are above the qualification age of 35 but under 50, your shorts are black or white and you tackle and get tackled normally. "First time for everything," someone said, under their breath, about the 36-year-old former Leeds and Great Britain prop Barrie McDermott.

In red shorts, we fiftysomethings are supposed to be grabbed two-handed; the gold-shorted over-sixties can only be tagged.

"I think the rules need some work," says Risman. "There seemed to be a hell of a lot of black shorts and white shorts running at me." He was playing for his native Cumbria against Scotland who, in a nod towards a youth policy, were led by his own younger brother, John, a spring chicken of 63.

With McDermott, who is still fit enough to be making a living from the game, former internationals like Hugh Waddell, Chris Burton and Steve Molloy were among the participants. The majority, though, were players with humbler pedigrees who had played lower-level professional rugby or decent amateur league until their bodies told them to stop.

"The goal is to re-engage them with the game," says Terry Flanagan, the former Oldham and Great Britain loose forward and chairman of Saddleworth Rangers who has been the driving force behind introducing the Masters concept to this country. "One of the problems with rugby league is that we lose so many players after the age of 35, when they get past the stage of playing competitively every week and have nowhere else to go. You've spent all that time building up a relationship with the game and then it just stops.

"Today has been a huge success. Everyone has enjoyed themselves and everyone has walked off the pitch at the end. If I'm disappointed about anything, it's that there's been too much talk about who won and lost. But that's a hard habit to break."

The Masters philosophy is that you look after your opposite number and that there are no winners and losers, difficult though that can be to understand after years of fierce competition.

McDermott, who is back at the club where it all started for him as an eight-year-old, believes it is worth making the effort.

"I've spent some time in Australia and New Zealand and it's huge there," he says. "You can all get together, remember how it used to be and play something that feels like a proper game."

McDermott's Lancashire beat Yorkshire by six tries to one – no goal-kicks in this version of the game – which happens to be the same score by which my team, the Students, beat the North-east. I qualified on the basis that I was once a student. "Howay man, but so was the Venerable Bede," I thought I caught one of the more erudite Geordies muttering.

They didn't seem to have read the paragraph of the rule book that says that the idea in Masters is to run for the gap rather than the man. Our opponents, mainly retired players from north-eastern clubs in the RL Conference, had a nasty habit of running straight at you, giving you the choice between tackling them and getting out of the way.

It can get confusing. I'm there in my red shorts and, if someone else in red comes at me, I'm still unsure whether I should tackle him, tag him or shout "Snap!" Still, confused or not, we came off to the strains of the Boarshurst Brass Band, suspecting we had died and gone, if not to heaven, then to rugby league Valhalla, for ever to relive old battles. That is something best done in a communal bath, swigging bottles of beer from crates provided by the sponsor.

When the hot water, the ale and the adrenalin stop flowing, the inevitable confirmation of your garish-shorted status comes not the morning after, but the morning after that – and on through the week.

But the overwhelming consensus in the warm afterglow of the clubhouse was that it was all worth it and that Masters has a real future in Britain. A series of tournaments at other clubs through the summer will lead to a more regular fixture list and even internationals against the Aussies and Kiwis. Of course, no one will care who wins those. Oh, and we won 6-1, by the way. Did I mention that?

For one afternoon, a hundred old players – good, bad and indifferent – had rediscovered their inner idiot and were all at least 10 years older for it.

Masters Rugby League: it does exactly what it promises on the front of the programme.