'Rugby clubs are integral part of their community and must survive'

This is going to sound like the setup to a surreal joke, but nevertheless: last week, a young man from St Helens called Harry Roberts was lying in bed when he looked up and saw the comedian Johnny Vegas standing at his bedroom window, bearing a box of face masks. As it turned out, Roberts – a 19-year-old St Helens fan who suffers from cerebral palsy and quadriplegia – had been the unwitting beneficiary of a visit from the Steve Prescott Foundation, the charity set up by the late Saints player, which over the last decade has become one of rugby league’s best known philanthropic enterprises. During the coronavirus crisis it has beendelivering food and protective equipment to households in St Helens, and as a proud Saints fan at a temporary loose end, Vegas has been cheerfully mucking in. Leeds Rhinos have been identifying elderly and vulnerable fans via their ticketing database and getting club stalwarts such as Stevie Ward and Kevin Sinfield to ring them and check if they’re OK. Castleford and Keighley are among the clubs to have designed special charity jerseys.The former England forward Ben Westwood has been turning up at Warrington Hospital with hundreds of bacon sandwiches for the staff. Never a fantastically profitable enterprise even in the good years, the onset of Covid-19 and the ensuing economic downturn have driven a sport overwhelmingly reliant on match-day revenue to the very brink. According to the Wakefield chief executive, Michael Carter, just a single postponed home fixture costs his club about £60,000in lost income. Project that over an entire season, which now looks like the likeliest scenario, and for clubs that count their revenue in the thousands rather than the millions, theeffectcould be disastrous. The owner of Hull Kingston Rovers, Neil Hudgell, has warned that rugby league could cease to exist as a full-time sport by this time next year without some sort of government funding. No longer: northern towns are the new frontier of British politics, as unthinkable as it might have seemed a generation ago, and though few in the sport wouldbeimpolite enough to say so explicitly, the fact that rugby league’s heartlands are now electorally live may just ensure them a proper hearing.