Ex-Salford ace Josh Griffin calls for shorter Super League matches to help player welfare in post-Covid world

Super League matches should be shortened by 20 minutes to protect player welfare when rugby league returns, according to former Salford centre Josh Griffin.

The last top-flight fixture took place on March 15 and the sport is weighing up how it can safely finish the 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

“I do quite like the thought of reducing the game by 20 minutes because you [the players] are then effectively missing one in every four games,” explained Hull FC’s Griffin. 

“You are still getting an exciting game and a good product and are just losing ten minutes from each half. I think changing from 80 to 60 minutes until the end of the season is definitely something to look at and could make a big difference.”

Super League rules currently ban teams playing within five days of their previous game, but with postponed fixtures piling up players may be asked to take to the field more often than usual. 

Leeds Rhinos CEO Gary Hetherington said in April: “That [five-day rule] is going to have to go out of the window because we will have to be playing three times a week. But that’s not a player welfare issue – it’s a performance one.

“I’d be disappointed if I started hearing people whinging and using player welfare as an issue for playing too many games, when it’s not an issue. Player welfare is very serious but that’s not about playing more games than one would hope to play.”

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Hetherington’s comments caused quite a stir and were met with widespread concern from many, including Griffin.

“I don’t think Gary thought about the players, he had no respect for us there,” Griffin said. “He kind of said player welfare should not be an issue – the way it came across was not great to read.  

“It’s disrespectful to players who are willing to do their part for the game. We have families and lives outside of rugby; serious injuries can occur if you are making players play under fatigue and three games a week. It’s not just physical, it’s mental as well.” 

Griffin is spending lockdown with his partner and two-year-old son, but life has changed immeasurably since he last trudged off the pitch 13 weeks ago.  

Minutes after Hull FC were thrashed 38-4 by Warrington Wolves on March 12, coach Lee Radford was dramatically sacked by chairman Adam Pearson live on TV in a post-match interview.

“Losing Radders was a big blow and we’ve not had the chance to put that right yet,” Griffin said. “We probably had a lot of issues as a playing group to sort out off the field and we’ve not been able to – not seeing the boys everyday has been weird.” 

Players and staff across Super League have been furloughed including Griffin and his Hull FC team-mates, who have taken a 35 per cent pay cut to ease the financial burden on the club.  

Griffin turned 30 on May 9 but had little cause to celebrate the milestone. His joint birthday party with fiancée Katy – who is just one day older – had to be cancelled. To make matters worse, the pair’s October wedding has been pushed back a year to account for the season extending beyond its original October 10 conclusion.

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“I tried to ignore it [turning 30] and pretend it didn’t happen,” Griffin joked. “Me and the missus had a takeaway and a Zoom call with my family – as much as you can do really, it wasn’t too exciting.” 

It is not the only important Zoom call he has fielded during lockdown. Uncapped Griffin had been called up by the new England coach Shaun Wane to his first player briefing but the gathering scheduled for the end of March was cancelled.

“I was over the moon to receive that call,” he said. “I’ve had a Zoom chat with Shaun in lockdown and he’s expressed his logic and what he is looking for from us as players.”

The Ashes series between England and Australia, due to take place in October and November, was cancelled on June 1 in light of coronavirus. A number of players have thrown their support behind an Exiles series and Griffin agrees that it is the best chance of England taking to the field for the first time since November 2018.

He said: “I think the Exiles competition would be massive – we’ve got some great overseas signings in Super League and if you put them into one team it would be a frightening prospect. It’s as close to playing an Australian team as you could hope for.”

With lockdown measures slightly eased and time on his hands, Griffin saw an opportunity to raise money for the NHS by hosting socially distanced personal training and rugby coaching sessions around Hull. 

A fully qualified personal trainer, Griffin has enough of his own equipment to deliver a comprehensive workout and will even provide masks and gloves, if desired.   

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He charges £15 per 30 minutes for the outdoor coaching, of which £5 will be donated to the NHS, and began on May 29. “It’s something to help people out – training and keeping fit is massive in terms of mental health especially when people are struggling to get access to a gym.   

“It’s just doing my little bit for the NHS and giving back to the community. I don’t want to make loads of money, just cover my expenses for travelling around and get people active again.” 

Notable in their absence on the pitch, players are striving to have their voice heard off it.  

On May 27, Twitter was flooded with images of blue squares posted by top Super League stars, including Griffin, in a show of solidarity as they seek a stronger say in their game as part of a GMB union movement.   

“We just want a seat at the table, we want the best for the game and we know we have got to make sacrifices,” Griffin said. “But we want to be heard and give our thoughts on stuff instead of being told what to do. It makes a massive difference as we are the ones putting our bodies on the line.” 

One major issue was a proposed salary cup reduction, but Super League acted swiftly as they confirmed the following day that all 12 clubs had unanimously voted to maintain the current spending limit of £2.1m.  

Players were buoyed by the news, after fearing a reduction would see the quality of the competition suffer as big-name signings look elsewhere.  

One such signing is Greg Inglis. The former Australian international, 33, sent shockwaves through the sport by announcing he was coming out of retirement in May – after hanging up his boots in April 2019 – to sign with Warrington for next season.

“Inglis was a bit of a role model for me – you always wanted to try and imitate his game,” said Griffin. “He’s been one of the best players in the world, if not the best, so it is a massive coup for Super League. I just hope I won’t have to come up against him [on my side of the field].”  

Australia’s NRL, where Inglis starred for the Melbourne Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs, restarted on May 28 with virtual crowd noise, one referee instead of its usual two and a new rule where officials restart the tackle count instead of giving a penalty for defensive ruck infringements.  

The Rugby Football League committee recommended on June 11 that the new ‘six again’ rule be adopted in Super League as well as proposing the removal of scrums to reduce contact amid Covid-19.

NRL games have been held behind closed doors but the ‘Fan in the Stand’ initiative – where supporters can pay the equivalent of £12 for a cardboard cut-out of their face to appear in the crowd – filled seats ahead of the phased return of spectators from this weekend. One prankster even submitted an image of Boris Johnson’s aide Dominic Cummings. 

Super League players are already taking inspiration from their Australian counterparts as they push for stronger representation, akin to the more powerful Rugby League Players Association down under, but still eagerly await a concrete date for a return to training.  

Three return-to-play models are being assessed by Super League with a mid-August restart for matches touted, a truncated season likely to finish in November or December and further announcements due soon.   

For now, Griffin will split his time between decorating the family’s new home and his fundraising venture, eagerly awaiting a competitive return – even if it is for just a 60-minute showing. 

Main image courtesy of Rugby AM via YouTube, with thanks.

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