THE INJURY which will keep Paul Aiton out of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final was terrible timing, or possibly not.
Aiton suffered a broken arm in Leeds Rhinos’ big win over Warrington Wolves last Friday, 22 days before the Wembley showdown with Hull KR.
It was rotten luck for Aiton, who has been outstanding for Leeds this year – and ever-present so far – and for Rhinos, who now have three players on the long-term casualty list.
But if it had happened this week, Rhinos would have been in even more trouble. With Aiton in such good form and injury-free before last week, Leeds’ under-19s hooker Robbie Ward has played just twice this year, both as a substitute. He has been featuring mainly in the academy and on dual-registration for Hunslet Hawks.
Ward had been due to play for Hawks against Dewsbury Rams in the Kingstone Press Championship Shield last Sunday, but was pulled out of the squad – along with Leeds under-19s half-back Jordan Lilley – following Aiton’s injury.
The sport got itself into a pickle last year because of rules on who was or was not eligible to play for a lower division club on dual-registration.
Batley Bulldogs and Doncaster were initially deducted points for fielding ineligible dual-registration players, but that decision was overturned after Batley chairman Kevin Nicholas did some detective work and discovered other similar breaches of the rules, which had gone unpunished.
It was a mess and Keighley Cougars, who would have survived if the penalties had stood, were eventually relegated, much to their anger and widespread sympathy across the game. That led to new rules this season which state players must have made three or more appearances for their dual-registration club to be eligible in the Super-8s phase of the season.
Once they play for one club – either their parent side or dual-reg outfit – after the Super-8s begin, they become club-tied and unable to play for anyone else for the remainder of the season.
What all that means is, had Ward played for Hunslet last Sunday and Aiton been injured against Wigan Warriors tomorrow, rather than in the Warrington match, Rhinos would have been left without a back-up hooker.
Rhinos coach Brian McDermott has decided not to include Ward in his squad tomorrow, but he is available for future games as long as he doesn’t return to Hunslet.
Hawks were without any dual-reg players last weekend, which was a blow to their prospects of avoiding relegation. Rhinos have a partnership with Hunslet, but clearly their own interests come first and they would be foolish to risk leaving themselves without cover if injuries strike.
Leeds may decide not to use any of the players who qualify for Hunslet, but that means youngsters are being deprived of much-needed game time.
The RFL are right to impose clear rules, which all parties understand and are aware of.
It is understandable the governing body want to avoid a repeat of last year’s fiasco and are keen to avoid players being used as ‘ringers’ on dual-registration in crucial matches.
But equally, the way the system operates at the moment has obvious flaws and those will need ironing out.
An exemption in the case of a long-term injury, like Aiton’s, would be a sensible compromise.
Speaking of injuries, there were worrying scenes at Headingley last Friday when 10-year-old Charlie Scollen was hurt playing for Leeds Underdogs in a half-time game.
As reported in the Yorkshire Evening Post, the second half of Leeds’ match against Warrington had to be delayed as he was treated on the pitch.
Charlie was applauded by both sets of fans and players as he was carried off and got to share an ambulance to hospital with Aiton, who he said “never stopped talking” all the way there. He made a full recovery and was later invited back to Headingley to meet Rhinos’ players and be presented with a signed shirt. The incident highlighted the uplifting side of rugby league’s character – as well as what a tough sport it is at all levels.