From the day the Championship season was suspended in March last year, Lee Greenwood has been patiently waiting for the moment his Dewsbury Rams team can return to the field.
The Rams could hardly have asked for a better start to the 2020 season. Three wins from four, including victories over big guns Halifax and Widnes Vikings, saw them sitting sixth and in touch with many of the second tier’s leading lights.
But, as with so many other aspects of life, the Covid-19 pandemic forced rugby league to shut down mid-March and although Super League resumed behind closed doors and with strict anti-coronavirus protocols in place, every other level of the sport would see the 2020 season eventually declared null and void.
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Slowly, the rest of the professional game is starting to flicker back into life – community, women’s and youth rugby league remain suspended for now – with the early rounds of the Challenge Cup up first next month, and when Dewsbury take to the field for their first pre-season friendly against Wakefield Trinity on March 14 it will be nearly a year to the day since they last played.
“It’s obviously been hard for everybody and it’s something none of us have ever come across before – and you would have never imagined it, would you?” Dewsbury head coach Greenwood said.
“The frustrating bit last year was we kept hanging on thinking we might come back. We locked down in March and we weren’t thinking that would be it until next February – who would have thought we would be off for that long?
“Then we saw signs of Super League coming back, we thought we’d be back as well. Then when that became apparent [it would not be the case] there was talk of a shorter season or Autumn tournament, so we wanted to enter that.
“Then you just end up being thankful you’re allowed back to training, which is what we did in November. We’re just really hopeful this does start in a few weeks’ time with friendlies and the Challenge Cup, and then obviously it can only be positive from then on.”
Even pre-season training has not been without its challenges though. The return in November saw Dewsbury plan a 10-day break at the end of December, but the January national lockdown saw that extended to nearly four weeks before they were given the all-clear to resume, meaning having to almost start from scratch.
There has been the period of adjustment to the safety and testing protocols in place which were adopted by Super League last year to enable that competition to resume, although club doctor Nick Raynor has helped that process thanks to his experience in the same role at Castleford Tigers.
As well as new playing conditions such as the ‘six again’ rule and no scrums, one of the biggest things to get used to on the field will be playing in front of no fans for the time being.
We locked down in March and we weren’t thinking that would be it until next February – who would have thought we would be off for that long?
“It’s going to be so weird when we go out, even for these friendlies, when there is no crowd there, getting dressed separately, turning up changed and getting straight off after a game,” Greenwood said.
“It’s totally alien to us, so that is going to be initially weird and we’re going to have to do that for a good month to six weeks at least. Then when you start seeing smaller crowds coming back, we’ll have to change it all again.
“Even when you have small crowds, you at least have your family watching, you have people there with you and you see the same old faces after a game you talk to. That’s not going to be there, so it will be very strange.”
Greenwood has been able to retain a significant number of the players who made up the Rams squad for the curtailed 2020 campaign, including experienced former Super League halves Paul Sykes and Liam Finn.
Former Hull Kingston Rovers centre or back row Joe Wardill, who retired from full-time rugby two years ago aged just 21 due to persistent hip injuries, is making a comeback this year too, hooker Reiss Butterworth has joined from Huddersfield Giants, while Samoan centre Bayley Liu brings a new dimension to the side as well.
Greenwood is enthusiastic about the progress made by former Siddal amateurs Joe Martin and Tom Garratt too and is quite happy to work on bringing those type of players through with the financial constraints of being a part-time club.
“We’ve got quite a few like that and that’s what you have to do at Dewsbury,” Greenwood said. “You can get some guys in who have got the experience and you know they’re going to be good, but you’ve always got to unearth these talents.
“It’s tough without your own academy and reserves and you have to go looking places other people don’t look, but that’s where you sometimes find these hidden gems.
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“I get more pleasure out of seeing them when they make it into being a regular Championship player and it’s good you can do that.”
The biggest priority is ensuring there is no Covid-19 outbreak affecting the squad, with the Rams having been able to do that so far through rigorous isolation protocols despite individual players having suffered with the virus.
Clubs in the division will be able to call of games this year if seven or more of their squad do test positive, but Greenwood, whose side make their return to competitive action away to Whitehaven in the Challenge Cup next month, has vowed to do everything possible to get all matches played.
“We’ve missed rugby for so long that we just want to get games on now,” Greenwood said. “At the end of the day I coach because I want to play games and want to coach rugby, and players want to play.
“We’ll be doing everything we can safety-wise to make sure we’re never in a position where we’ve only got seven, but even if we do if we’ve still got enough bodies to fill even a 15, we’ll do it.”
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