The decision of the National Conference League to operate on a regionalised basis this year, to limit travel concerns in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to a unique and interesting campaign.
Unique, given that Conference bosses reminded clubs at a recent meeting that the aim is to revert to four divisions in 2022, based on those that were in operation at the time of the first lockdown last year.
Meanwhile, League Express has sought the views of member clubs on the pros and cons of the present format.
Wigan St Patricks official Joe Charnock said: “It’s definitely boosted our bank balance after twelve months of being closed. Derby games are certainly bringing in the crowds and show what local bragging rights mean. Matches have been exceptional as clubs savour the return to some normality, with games being full-on but fair, ending in very close encounters.
“The question has to be asked – does the league format now need to be looked at? Local area-matches are really benefitting clubs from a financial point of view, as is not having to pay around £7,000 transport costs, with little help from the RFL. That’s a heavy burden for clubs to carry. Yet players want to test themselves against the best in the country – hence the great fixtures in the NCL.
“So I suppose it’s `big question time’ at the end of the season. Do we stay with the NCL format or do we adapt to local fixtures, with a top-two play off in each league, with teams then competing for which is the best in the country? I am sure there will be some passionate discussions about it, and hopefully the clubs will go for the best option that suits our great game.”
Thornhill secretary Andrew Byram said in the middle of last week: “We have arranged a friendly against Sherwood Wolf Pack on Saturday for our A team, so we won’t have a blank weekend. Some of our A team players have become restless due to the infrequent fixtures.
“As always, the shortage of players from June onwards continues to be a problem as they find other distractions during the warmer summer months, although regionalised divisions have allowed us to play games on Thursday and Friday evenings, which has helped keep people’s weekends free. The relaxing of the 48-hour rule is now allowing some of our players to double up for the first and A team to make up the numbers. Thursday and Friday evening games have also attracted a decent number of spectators which is food for thought.”
He continued: “Running a Masters section has also attracted former players back into the club and this looks to be gathering momentum with each fixture the Masters team play.
“Having games cancelled is part and parcel of running an ‘A’ team but it has been strange this season having first team games cancelled for reasons other than the weather (as was the case in the old days). This has been frustrating when we have organised sponsor days. The bar takings from home games are always welcome, too, so we don’t like it when games are cancelled.”
Danny Elston, of Oulton Raiders, said: “At the beginning of the season we had almost 50 training, thanks to our youth setup. We lost three to Bradford, and now two have signed at Hunslet. We had 14 injuries at one point, I would suggest this is through missing last year; we have been put on a 10-day ban from training and playing, due to Covid.
“On the positive side, this is a transition season. Our Under 18s look great, which means the future is bright. This week, after the second team dropped down to the Yorkshire Merit League, we have a game versus Bentley, with a return fixture in a few weeks. The NCL team are doing it tough but they are playing local derbies, so they are never easy games in a tough league. It’s all experience, and local derbies mean good crowds and money back into the club. As long as there is amateur Rugby League, we are happy.”
Ince Rose Bridge’s Tony Sanby, stressing that he was expressing a personal view, said: “Most of the clubs I have dealt with regarding fixture changes have been very amicable, and we of course have changed dates to help out our opposition when requested. This has been the spirit this unusual season.
“Clubs have worked extremely hard to get players training and playing under very difficult circumstances – well done to all the unpaid volunteers who have stuck by all the RFL protocols, while Alan Smith at the NCL League has been very helpful and professional in all my dealings with him.
“Most of the players and spectators have really enjoyed the local derbies and I think the NCL should look at this in depth.
“After the pandemic is over transport costs will rocket, membership fees will come in and sponsorship will be difficult to source putting the clubs under tremendous financial pressure, perhaps another reason to look at regionalised leagues.
“As Covid restrictions start to ease, the inevitable holiday getaway season for young individuals will hit clubs hard. I know at our club all the single lads are already planning to get away as a group as soon as possible, and the ones with families want to get away for long awaited breaks. I hope the league management understand the impact this could have on the remaining fixtures.
“Some players and coaches are staying away due to the worries of being `pinged’ and this needs to be considered on player availability.”
Hull Dockers’ Stan Pickering, also speaking personally, reflected: “This season, for me, has had its ups and downs. We have played some fixtures at home under restrictions but unfortunately have received no income from the games because we play on part of a park, and there were few people watching apart from against Skirlaugh, when we took a bucket round at half-time.
“Things have been tough money-wise – we don’t have any say or income from Willows club. Playing-wise, we have blooded some of our U18s from last year and they have done well, but it has been difficult to get players actually playing and training – we are trying to run two teams but interest has been patchy from players and we haven’t put the same team out two weeks on the trot.
“Our coaching staff are doing a great job in keeping things going and some of our players have done us proud with their efforts so, to them, a big `thank you’.”
Leigh Miners Rangers’ Jeff Gorse advised: “Generally speaking I think it’s worked for us – the travel expenses of a regular season are a real burden and it would have been particularly challenging this time around.
“We’ve had decent crowds for our games, and a good standard of rugby too. I think in general, with the exception so far of Wigan St Judes, all teams in our league have been well-matched. Thatto Heath were clearly the best early on, and are likely to remain so, but they have been tested by lower division teams.”
Beverley’s secretary Nick Robinson said: “The regionalised format enabled the game to get going again and is a good deal better than nothing at all.
However, it does feel like a watered-down version of the league. Yes, there are plenty of ‘derbies’ but when nearly all the matches are derbies the novelty factor goes. On the whole crowds are down as the public perception of it is as a somewhat contrived interim measure.”
He concluded: “We feel our club needs the profile of a genuine NCL competition with a variety of opposition from different parts of the country. Player availability is under greater pressure due to Covid cases, on top of the usual stag weekends and race meetings.”
The recent meeting of member clubs of the National Conference League, at which chair Trevor Hunt and club representative Mike Denning explained their findings on the Rugby Football League’s planned membership fees, was well received, says the RFL’s Director of Participation and Development Mark Lovering.
He told League Express: “It was a very thorough meeting. Both Trevor and Mike had plenty of questions, based on issues clubs in the NCL competition had raised, and we managed to address all of those. I think both left content that the figures relating to the costs of servicing the community game were robust.”
He continued: “One thing that did stand out to me was that even people such as Trevor and Mike, with a huge amount of experience around the game, didn’t fully appreciate all the work that goes on at the RFL to support the grassroots game. That is clearly something we need to improve on.”
Confirming that a Clubs’ Webinar is scheduled for this week, Lovering added: “We are, however, in contact with clubs across the country on a daily basis.
There are probably 5 per cent of stakeholders who we could never convince of the need for, or merits of, membership. But based on the consultation which has taken place so far I would summarise the position as follows:-
– Stakeholders accept that the community game has to become more sustainable.
– There is a greater understanding that whilst not all sports charge a membership, monies do not flow to the RFL as it does in virtually every other sport to support the delivery of the grassroots game.
– Whilst players pay money to take part in the sport there is a lack of appreciation that none of the monies are received by the RFL to support administration costs etc.
– The costs of servicing the game as set out by the RFL are robust.
– Whilst the introduction of a participant membership remains far from popular, the alternatives (for example of charging at a team or club level) are even less palatable.
– Despite the reduction in the levels of proposed membership fees there is still an understandable concern that some players will be prevented from becoming a member on purely financial grounds. There may also be an impact on players who do not play regularly but who step up to help out when teams are struggling for numbers, or who just want to try the sport before committing more fully. We have taken these concerns on board and are looking at solutions.
– Much of the opposition has stemmed from a lack of understanding of the need, rationale and benefits of membership. Once we have outlined the need etc there is a far greater understanding. The communication from the RFL could have been better and that is something we need to address moving forwards.”
He concluded: “Overall, the introduction of a participant membership will never be popular. The shaping of the offer based on feedback and consultation has helped ease some of the concerns, but we still have some work to do to address those that remain. Once this happens and the benefits are firmed up and become more widely known we’ll get to a decent place.”
A 36-player train-on squad has been named by Wales ahead of the Under 16s international with England on Sunday 22 August.
The game, at Colwyn Park, is part of a double-header with the Under 17s match between the sides, which will celebrate 20 years of junior international Rugby League in Wales.
Coach Mark Jones said: “It’s fantastic that we can have a curtain raiser for the already organised U17s international. With most our players not having a chance to play any representative Rugby League in nearly two years, we thought this development squad needed an opportunity to highlight their talent.
“Due to restrictions, it has been a very short pathway programme but Wayne Ponting, Stuart Wilkinson and I are excited to see what these players can do.”
The players have gravitated from the successful domestic junior competition in South Wales, where over a thousand juniors have been playing from aged 8 to 17 this year. Many have been attending Wales Rugby League academy development sessions in association with Coleg y Cymoedd and Salford Red Devils throughout June and July.
The squad is: Leon Caviel, Oliver Ford, Kian Godwin, Lewis Howells, Calum Jones (all Aber Valley Wolves), Jayden Grimes, William McCarthy, Isaac Morgan (all Aberavon Fighting Irish), Jacob Abbot, Lewis Dyke, Nick Evans, Jayden Grey, Josh Hanson, Llewellyn Hawkes, Brandon Richards, Charlie Stoddard, Harri Thomas, Dale Viant (all Bridgend Blue Bulls), John Baldwin, Daniel Bartlett, Josh Jackson, Dafydd Morgan, Dylan Morgan, Finlay Northrop, James Sprudd (all Cardiff Blue Dragons), Jarrad Hippsley, Drew Hope, Connor Lacey, Peter Richmond, Bradley Williams, Evan Wood (all Cynon Valley Cavaliers), Benjamin Morris, Cory Westermark (both Swansea Stallions), Alex Banks, Carter Barnes, Tre Huddleston (all Torfaen Tigers).
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.