Talking Grassroots: Armed Forces triumph in exciting President’s Cup competition

While UK Armed Forces went into last Wednesday’s final fixture of the 2022 President’s Cup campaign all-but assured of the title – opponents England Universities would have had to win by 90 points to top the standings on points’ difference – I expect that there’s plenty of satisfaction at the Rugby Football League over how the competition has gone.

The final table tells us that the Armed Forces, who lost to the Students 26-14, retained the championship on points’ difference, and not solely over the Universities.

Great Britain Police, who threw a real spanner into the works with their surprise win over the Students at Lock Lane last month, also finished joint top to illustrate just how tight the President’s Cup was on its return after the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Having three of the four sides only separated in the title stakes through points’ difference is one thing. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that Great Britain Teachers, who closed with three defeats in as many outings, were in truth much, much better than that.

The Elbow-Patchers were only 22-12 behind against England Universities in their first game before losing 32-12 and had been 12-10 in front against the Armed Forces before, after being just 28-18 adrift, ultimately losing 40-18. And their 40-32 reverse against the Police arose after they had led 10-0 and were 26-24 ahead with time running out. 

The President’s Cup really has been a serious four-team competition and I’m already looking forward to the 2023 bash – as, I’m sure, is the Teachers’ chairman Carl Etherington, who I know well from his playing days (not that he’s hung his boots up yet) and who brings a real players’ mentality to the cause.

Etho is heavily involved, these days, at Castleford Panthers, who have relaunched their Open Age team after a few years’ hiatus, and I imagine folk at Raglan Road wouldn’t at all mind a return, in time, to the National Conference League. If that happens, they would be joining a vibrant competition which, as it happens, is now at the halfway point in terms of the 2022 campaign.

The dust has pretty much settled regarding which teams are battling for titles or promotion – or, less happily, which are aiming to avoid relegation or having to seek re-election – in each of the flagship league’s four competitions.

The tussle for the coveted League Leaders’ Shield in the Premier Division appears, at this stage anyway, to rest between West Hull, Lock Lane, Hunslet Club Parkside, reigning champions Thatto Heath Crusaders and 2021 Grand Final runners-up Wath Brow Hornets, who won comfortably at Cumbrian rivals Egremont Rangers on Saturday. But another of the usual suspects, Siddal, may be out of the running for that particular prize after having lost, as of early May, four successive games, although subsequent victories over Egremont and York Acorn might have reignited the Halifax outfit’s ambitions. And Siddal are of course targeting a place in the top six play-offs, success in which decides who will be crowned as champions. 

Lock Lane, who were second after the first week of May, have slipped to fourth following home defeats against Hunslet Club Parkside and West Hull, reverses that have dented their status as favourites to close in pole position. The Castleford outfit, who had a fire in their changing room area at the start of the season, were obliged to play away over the first few weeks and had been well-placed for the second half of the campaign, having staged only two home games from eight fixtures prior to the visits of Hunslet and Wests.

The relegation dogfight is interesting. Bottom side York Acorn grabbed their first win, after having gone close a few times (including a 10-10 home draw with West Hull, a 24-18 reverse at Thatto Heath and a 26-24 defeat at Egremont) against Leigh Miners Rangers as May arrived but are now five points adrift of fourth-from-bottom Rangers – with Thornhill and Egremont sandwiched between – with three teams going down. 

Hull Dockers slipped off the top of Division One following the defeat nine days ago at Oulton. New leaders Kells are just four points ahead of West Bowling, who are sixth in a highly competitive section and they, Dockers, Stanningley, Ince Rose Bridge and Oulton will all harbour hopes of finishing in the top two and securing automatic promotion. The end-of-season play-offs involving the next four teams, to determine who will also go up, should be extremely open and interesting, with Skirlaugh and possibly Featherstone Lions, who are easing away from the drop zone after three wins in four outings, aiming to be in the mix.

Many, though, could also get dragged into the relegation dogfight. A young Milford side, which is still seeking a first win – despite some decent results, including a 30-28 defeat at Ince Rose Bridge and a good performance in defeat against new pacesetters Kells – may be better off rebuilding in Division Two, should the drop become reality. Can Saddleworth and Myton, who are also in the bottom three, emulate Featherstone? It’s not beyond them. 

Who will head Division Two at the end of the summer? Barrow Island, with five successive wins behind them, are top as June beckons, while Heworth, unbeaten in the last seven outings, are only a point adrift in second spot. Highfliers Crosfields, together with Normanton Knights and Woolston, comprise the rest of the top six but, as so often in each of the NCL’s four sections, sides on the fringes of the play-off berths can so easily get sucked into the relegation dog-fight. Beverley, Dewsbury Celtic and Bradford Dudley Hill are currently in the drop-zone but Hunslet Warriors are only above Beverley on points’ difference and Wigan St Judes are too close to the danger area for comfort; the whole situation could change significantly for any of those teams in the space of a couple of weeks. Anything, in fact, can happen and, for proof, look at Celtic’s 28-18 win over Normanton Knights on 30 April, a victory that hoisted the hosts off the foot of the section.

Given those fluctuations in fortunes, such as the Knights and Woolston – not to mention Dewsbury Moor Maroons, who sit in that intriguing “no man’s land” between the play-off spots and the danger area – could arguably find themselves looking at either prospect as the end of the season hovers ever-nearer.

What, meanwhile, of Division Three? At this stage East Leeds, who have lost only one of eleven games, are an odds-on bet to go up.

Who will join them? Second-placed Waterhead, together with Oldham St Annes, Seaton Rangers and Shaw Cross, are six points adrift of the pacesetters, while Bentley are only a couple of points behind that group. And Drighlington, Batley Boys and Millom won’t consider themselves to be out of the equation. 

At the other end of the table, Eastmoor Dragons (like Milford, another very young side) grabbed their first win with a 26-12 victory over Leigh East last week. That confidence-instilling triumph could be transformative.

Much the same can be said of second-from-bottom Hensingham who, prior to the 54-12 defeat by St Annes, have been edged twice at home, by Cumbrian neighbours Seaton (16-14) and by Shaw Cross (20-16). And Leigh East, who are third-from-bottom, are also often going close, with defeats at Batley Boys (17-16), Drighlington (26-22) and Millom (30-26) serving as evidence. 

Yes, it’s all very much to play for as the halfway stage beckons, which is exactly how it should be and illustrates why the National Conference League is one of the most vibrant competitions in British Rugby League.

Congratulations, meanwhile, to fledgling outfit Anglian Vipers who notched the first win in their short history on Saturday, beating North Herts Crusaders 48-38 in the East RL Cup. The Vipers did it the hard way, too, battling back from 24-12 adrift at half time. It will be good to watch their progress in this particular competition.

Finally, the funeral of my old friend Keith Pickering, whose death I reported in last week’s issue, will take place on Monday 13 June (12.15pm) at St Oswald’s church, Methley, followed by a celebration of the former Lock Lane winger and Methley Royals chairman’s life at Methley WMC (also known as the Top Club).  I’m sure that many people reading this will wish to pay their respects to a fine man.

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