‘We are here to help you’ - Rugby League Cares’s Francis Stephenson tells ex-players

DOING OUR BIT:  Former Wakefield Trinity, Wigan and England forward Francis Stephenson is now a trustee for the charity Rugby League Cares. Picture: Nick FairhurstDOING OUR BIT:  Former Wakefield Trinity, Wigan and England forward Francis Stephenson is now a trustee for the charity Rugby League Cares. Picture: Nick Fairhurst
DOING OUR BIT: Former Wakefield Trinity, Wigan and England forward Francis Stephenson is now a trustee for the charity Rugby League Cares. Picture: Nick Fairhurst | JPIMedia
THE day-to-day impact of coronavirus can be more difficult for some than others but Rugby League Cares is undoubtedly ready to help in the weeks and months ahead.

The charity last week announced it is teaming up with Betfred Super League, Championship and League 1 clubs to help combat the issues faced by retired players during the pandemic.

The Government has advised all people aged 70 and over to avoid social contact for 12 weeks, raising the prospect that some former players and their families could be left feeling isolated.

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To support the game’s elderly heroes, RL Cares has been working alongside the RFL and club foundation staff to recruit a team of dedicated volunteers who can reach out to vulnerable past players in their local communities. Former Wakefield Trinity and England prop Francis Stephenson, one of the trustees for the charity, told The Yorkshire Post: “We’ve had plenty of support and people keen to support the past player community.

POWERHOUSE: Former Wakefield forward Francis Stephenson.POWERHOUSE: Former Wakefield forward Francis Stephenson.
POWERHOUSE: Former Wakefield forward Francis Stephenson.

“That’s encouraging and really heartening.

“We’ve had volunteers from all walks of life and the big part for me is that positive reaction from the general public.

“They have put their hands up and have wanted to help, from all corners of the game and all corners of the country.”

Former players and members of the public were asked to contact RL Cares to let the charity know of any individual who might need support.

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They would then liaise with clubs to identify a suitable volunteer ‘buddy’ who will then make contact with the former player to offer the help they need.

For privacy reasons, Stephenson could not disclose who had been involved so far but he added: “It is early days yet and take up has been mainly from volunteers.

“Perhaps as this lockdown progresses, more and more requirements will be needed from former players.

“I do know John Ledger, our communications manager, has had a number of conversations and just being able to provide contact support – just having a chat with some of the older people – has been worthwhile.

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“There’s nothing physical in terms of delivering shopping or picking up medications; just having half an hour on the phone to someone has meant the world to some of the past players.

“I’d encourage former players to come forward and make use of it as we are here ready and willing to get out there. I know us men of a certain age don’t really ask for anything very often. But in these circumstances we’d urge anybody who has any connection with the game – past players, coaches, referees – who could do with a bit of help to get in touch.

“We have plenty of volunteers and we’re here to help.

“The people wanting to help are all fans of rugby league anyway but their motivation is that they are just keen to help the local community anyway whether it’s rugby league or not.

“And if they get to meet one of their heroes at the same time, all well and good!”

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Dewsbury-born Stephenson, 44, played 125 games for Trinity during an eight-year stint starting in 1993, and represented England at the 2000 World Cup.

After two years at Wigan, he had a successful spell with London Broncos before finishing his career with Hull KR in 2006.

Stephenson insisted: “I don’t miss it, I loved it when I played and I look back with fond memories at the friendships I made and what I did. But it’s a different chapter of my life. You have another journey to go on and it’s exciting finding out what’s next.”

In terms of his career highlight, his response is instant.

“Coming out of the old first division with Wakefield in 1998,” said Stephenson.

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“We were all part-time players and all hoping to have professional players but back in those days, before Super League, it was a bit of a scrap in that division.

“We had a great year in ’98; a great bunch of lads came together and all the stars aligned.

“We got promoted after beating Featherstone in the Grand Final at McAlpine in a tight affair.

“I sometimes look back on that game and think it is a knife-edge; if we’d have lost that game, Wakefield could have spent the next 22 years in the old first division and Featherstone could have been in Super League for the last 22 years instead.”

For more information contact www.rugbyleaguecares.org

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