Volunteers toil away to keep grassroots footy growing despite pandemic

This article was first written for and published by NRL.com

It’s hard enough running a grassroots footy club at the best of times but when there’s a pandemic that means volunteers need to ensure biosecurity rules are followed, it becomes a monumental task.

When the NSWRL announced grassroots footy would return in July, the news was met with plenty of joy from players across the country.

Behind the scenes, there are countless volunteers working hard to keep the field safe for everyone.

They’ve put in untold hours making sure their club meet the stringent guidelines – teams were permitted to resume full contact training from July 1 with competitions scheduled to kick off across the state next weekend.

Michelle Kelly is one such volunteeer – she has been a member of Asquith Leagues Club for 40 years and in 2016 was awarded life membership of North Sydney District Junior Rugby League.

Like many other women, when her sons began playing rugby league for their junior club, the Asquith Magpies, Kelly began to get more involved with rugby league.

Over the last 25 years, Kelly has held many roles within the club. She has volunteered for canteen duty, run countless fundraisers, managed social media pages and has been on the executive committee for 15 years.

Asquith Magpies stalwart Michelle Kelly.
Asquith Magpies stalwart Michelle Kelly.

Kelly has two current roles – female pathways coordinator and she is also the club’s welfare and development officer responsible for health and wellbeing, player development, recruitment, education and trainer accreditations as well as community liaisons with the schools, the PCYC and the area’s local women’s shelter.

More recently, Kelly has also played a key part in looking after the Magpies’ community during the pandemic and getting the club ready to return to the field.

“The news about the pandemic was a worrying time for many of us with so much uncertainty about how it would affect our everyday life,” Kelly said.

“But with businesses and schools closing and the suspension of sport, we saw it as our role to check in on our club community to make sure that they were doing OK.

“Through online chats and calls, messaging committee members were able to keep in touch with our footy community.

“Using our social media, we were able to provide families with links and resources through our connections to the NRL’s State of Mind campaign, Lifeline and Headspace. We also engaged teams with fun videos, photo sharing and online training activities.”

Then, when the announcement of the resumption of sport happened, the club mobilised to make sure its community could return to the field safely.

But plenty of steps had to be taken. Each club is required to have a COVID-19 Safety Coordinator to ensure the “Return to Sport” policies and procedures are implemented and followed, and that safety plans, risk assessments and checklists are completed.

Strict biosecurity guidelines are in place for the return of community rugby league.
Strict biosecurity guidelines are in place for the return of community rugby league.

The club president, secretary, coaches and managers attended various training sessions and all teams were given COVID-19 kits with the documentation needed to start playing again, including sign-on screening sheets for training and special training activities for the non-contact period.

That was all before the players returned to training!

“Hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes have become our new normal,” says Kelly.

“At first, training could only be in groups of 10, so this had to be managed by our safety officers. We have only just resumed contract training and tackling.”

It meant changes for parents too.

“Parents were asked to drop players off just before training and pick them up promptly at the end. Players had to enter at one point of the ground and exit another to avoid crossover of teams,” Kelly said.

Hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes have become our new normal.

Michelle Kelly

“Even though this whole process has been overseen by a few key committee members, it has been a combined effort by all players, parents and volunteers to get us back on the field.”

Given the detail in these procedures and the diligence required to ensure a safe training and playing environment for all, it comes as no surprise that many clubs have made the decision not to field teams this year.

Local footy clubs are run on volunteer support and the challenges of the pandemic has meant that some clubs do not have the resources to operate safely and effectively this year.

The Magpies had to make the very difficult decision not to enter two senior teams into the NSWRL Sydney Shield and Ron Massey Cup Competition for 2020/2021 which was hard for all players and coaching staff involved in these squads.

Despite this, Kelly is extremely proud of how many Magpies will take the field.

“This year we are fielding junior teams from under 6s through to under 18s and a senior squad for under 23s/A grade,” she said.

“Our teams from under 6s to under 12s are mixed and we have been so pleased to see the growing number of girls wanting to play rugby league.”

The Asquith Magpies have actively been promoting women's rugby league at their club.
The Asquith Magpies have actively been promoting women’s rugby league at their club.

While the pandemic has brought challenges, Kelly is hopeful it will not stunt the progress the club has made in relation to the women’s game.

“In 2019, in a first for the Magpies and the North Sydney District, we entered our under 16s all-girl tackle team in the NSWRL Combined Competitions and I had the joy of managing this team,” Kelly says.

“With the club being part of the North Sydney district and with my close connection to the Bears women’s team we will continue to work to grow these numbers to possible 14s, 16s and 18s teams for the future and develop a pathway for our girls into the Bears and beyond.”