Talking Grassroots: A Question of Geography for the NCL

Talking Grassroots with Phil Hodgson of League Express

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

The ancient proverb springs to mind (or at least to mine) as clubs in the National Conference League seriously reflect on the pros and cons of this year’s regionalised format.

Amateur Rugby League’s flagship competition has, of course, always operated on a divisional basis since its launch in 1986, when a single league was in force. But, this year, Conference bosses and member clubs were forced into a rethink.

Given government restrictions regarding travel, games between teams separated by any kind of distance were essentially vetoed (not that the NCL’s management or the clubs themselves, being made up as they are of responsible citizens, would have contemplated anything else). Chairman Trevor Hunt and his colleagues came up with what is, in my opinion, an exciting and fascinating formula by which the 49 teams would play in seven regional leagues of seven teams each, with the top two in each section, plus the third-placed sides in a couple of others, due to play off for the title, while others would be invited to enjoy end-of-season knockout competitions.

I asked clubs, in the middle of last week, for their views regarding how things have gone. And the answers, published in League Express, are pretty much what you’d expect.

Treasurers were always likely to be fairly pleased as, in the main – but not universally – more derby games have led to bigger crowds and increased income. And the savings made on coach travel have given clubs’ coffers a further boost.

Players and coaches, however, might have different views. A big advantage of divisions is that teams can expect to face opponents of a fairly similar standard, which leads to a generally more enjoyable experience. Closely contested matches, though, can go out of the window when the composition of leagues is determined by geography rather than by quality. And, as anyone who has ever been involved in running a team will attest, that can mean players voting with their feet and simply not showing up for matches that they don’t fancy too much.

I’ve heard of that happening at one or two clubs – and a couple of sides have fallen by the wayside during the 2021 campaign, although not necessarily for that particular reason.

We still have to emerge, as a global society, from the Covid-19 pandemic, so it could be the case that regionalised fare remains in place for the National Conference League into next year and perhaps beyond.

But if, as we all fervently hope, we can return to normality sooner rather than later, it seems that quite a few clubs will ask that a full debate be had on whether a regionalised format should be adopted.

Their case would, for sure, not be without merit. In fact, I’ve pressed from time to time in this column for the NCL to be regionalised to some degree, largely for reasons of cost, but also for the simple fact that not all young blokes want to spend too many Saturday nights on lengthy coach trips. That alone can affect player retention and, as I’ve often said, once a game starts it doesn’t really matter much where the patch of grass you’re on happens to be. And in view of increasing concerns over carbon emissions, it’s only right that Rugby League plays its part in trying to save the planet.

There has to be a national element to the NCL, though, otherwise the competition simply isn’t what it says on the tin (some might argue that that’s the situation now) and I seem to recall having proposed, several times, three regionalised leagues feeding into a Premier Division.

That could be a potential solution which could be debated as and when NCL bosses and clubs review the 2021 season and use the lessons learned, and the valuable experience, for future planning.

Meanwhile, it emerged from the recent meeting of clubs, at which Hunt and club representative Mike Denning passed on their findings over the RFL’s planned Club Membership scheme, that the original plan to revert to the divisions that were in place in March last year still stands. A view, however, that the proposed knockout competitions for clubs that miss out on the play-offs this season should be replaced by more localised league games is being considered. If anything good has come out of the coronavirus crisis insofar as it affects amateur Rugby League clubs, it’s that the need for regionalise fare will lead to properly informed debate.

Meanwhile, an advance note for your diaries. The Wheelchair Challenge Cup Final, between Argonauts and Leeds Rhinos, will be taking place at the English Institute of Sport, Sheffield, on Sunday week. A full preview will feature in next week’s issue; it will be an occasion to relish, that’s for sure.

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