Championship and League 1 clubs are gearing up for the new season after agreeing to delayed starts.
A meeting last Wednesday saw clubs from both divisions agree to push back the season, with the Championship now set to start on Easter weekend (2nd to 5th April) and League 1 to start on the weekend of May 8/9th.
Championship clubs could return two weeks before that, with the first two rounds of the Challenge Cup set to take place on the weekends of March 20/21st and March 27/28th.
But League 1 clubs could return even earlier after a number of them also showed interest in also entering the Challenge Cup.
The RFL’s initial proposal envisaged the 13 UK-based Championship clubs enter the competition, with three byes added to make it a round of 16. They would then be whittled down to four clubs over two weeks, with those four clubs then automatically becoming the semi-finalists of the 1895 Cup, whose final would also be held at Wembley.
However, a number of League 1 clubs said they would also like to enter the Challenge Cup, even if their league competition doesn’t start until May. As a result, the RFL asked clubs from the third-tier whether they would like to participate, and the majority of the ten League 1 clubs are believed to have put their hands up.
As a result, a preliminary round, which would take place on the weekend of March 13/14th, could now take place.
Details are likely to be revealed by the RFL this week.
Championship clubs agreed to a reduced 23-round competition, which would still be deemed meaningful enough to ensure that promotion and relegation could take place at the end of the season.
Clubs were told they were free to return to Phase 1 training over the weekend, which permits outdoor, non-contact training. Phase 2, which allows contact, is set to be approved from February 1st.
Meanwhile, the start of the season could see a number of games staged at the same venue.
The option to replicate what Super League did during 2021 was discussed, with clubs open to the option, given that the prospect of crowds being allowed back into home venues during the early stages of the season appear to be completely unrealistic.
The move would see clubs save operational costs and it would be more attractive for broadcasting, given that it would save costs on hiring multiple crews. A number of clubs are believed to have expressed an interest in hosting games on this basis.
Another discussion point was the involvement of Toulouse Olympique. The French government banned cross-border elite sport earlier this month as a result of the new Covid-19 variant in the UK.
That inevitably impacts the French club. However, with Toulouse not set to participate in the Challenge Cup, they are not due to take the field for another eleven weeks, meaning that time remains on their side.
Should the ban remain in place, their involvement in the competition will become more questionable, thought the RFL is hoping that the situation will improve in the coming weeks.
March 13/14th – Potential Challenge Cup preliminary round.
March 20/21st – Challenge Cup first round
March 27/28th – Challenge Cup second round
Easter weekend (April 2nd/4th) Championship Round 1
May 8th/9th – League 1 Round 1
July 17th – Challenge Cup Final.
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