Talking Grassroots: The Magnificent Seven

Talking Grassroots Rugby League with Phil Hodgson of League Express

Congratulations to Wath Brow Hornets, Thatto Heath Crusaders, Crosfields, Siddal, Normanton Knights, West Bowling and Heworth.

The ‘sensational seven’ have topped, respectively, Leagues A, B, C, D, E, F and G of the National Conference League’s regional competitions and, in addition to receiving trophies, will enjoy home ties when next Saturday’s Championship play-offs get under way.

They will be joined by the runners-up in each section, together with the third-placed sides from League’s B and F (and didn’t some of those issues go right down to the wire, as readers will see from our round-up elsewhere in this issue).

Clubs that lose next week will head into the Shield, while outfits that didn’t make the play-offs are entitled to contest the knockout cup competition.

A number are not taking part (perhaps battle-weary after in some instances very tough campaigns – it can’t have been easy for some, regularly facing teams that in normal circumstances would be placed in much higher divisions).

You can’t blame such clubs for opting to draw a line on the 2021 season. On the other hand you can understand others, perhaps excited by the opportunity to meet similar opposition, and with a trophy at stake, choosing to extend their campaigns.

NCL bosses, especially administrator Alan Smith, have worked tirelessly for the last few months to offer meaningful Rugby League to their member clubs, and I reckon they’ve succeeded in their aims.

Alan emailed me several times last week, initially with details of the management group’s decisions regarding unfulfilled fixtures over recent months.

Crucially, leading teams in the Cumbria-based League A were held to not have been at fault for a series of postponements which left them some way short of playing the number of games required to be in the play-offs. And happily – in my view anyway, and I‘m sure that most, if not all, will agree – Wath Brow Hornets and Kells will be involved in next Saturday’s knockout fixtures.

The various rulings didn’t, as far as I could see, make much difference to league placings, an exception being in League C, where Woolston Rovers shot up from fourth to second, with Rochdale Mayfield and Clock Face Miners slipping down a position accordingly – although that situation was turned on its head on Saturday, Mayfield retrieving runners-up spot by winning at Saddleworth and Rovers missing out on the play-offs, tumbling to fourth after losing at Clock Face.

Alan was back again, late on Friday afternoon, with the formulas for the later rounds of the Shield and the Knockout Cup, and at the same time he also offered either/or backgrounds to which clubs would be taking part in which competitions, according to how results could go on Saturday.

That information was certainly very useful, as was his reminder that, should teams finish level on percentage, placings would be determined through head-to-head league results between those sides. For example Siddal topped League D, ahead of Hunslet Club Parkside, through having narrowly had the better of exchanges between the clubs during the regular season. And three clubs – Thornhill, Bradford Dudley Hill and Underbank Rangers – were vying for third place in League G (and a berth in the play-offs), with Rangers having a superior record in direct clashes between the trio.

Phew! It’s made for an exciting climax to the campaign, a run-in that’s maybe turned out to be much better than Conference bosses could have anticipated when they came up with the regional league template as a means of solving problems – notably travel issues – caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On that latter aspect, by the way, the NCL will soon be holding its annual general meeting, when an item high on the agenda will be that of the structure for 2022. I think the plan is to revert to divisions (as they were comprised last year, when the lockdowns first struck) but there may be one or two clubs that could favour sticking to regionalised rugby, not least because more ‘derbies’ generally result in bigger crowds and higher income. On the other hand, players faced with higher standard opposition week after week often, as many of us know all too painfully, often vote with their feet. And amateur Rugby League is, ultimately, primarily about players.

Back to the climax to the NCL’s season, though. I’ve attempted, in this week’s League Express (Mon 13th Sept), to set out fixtures for subsequent rounds of each of the Conference’s three competitions, which will be completed on a triple-headed finals day at the Millennium Stadium, Post Office Road, Featherstone Rovers, on Saturday 16 October. Hopefully the information will give players, coaches and secretaries an idea of who they could be facing some way down the track.

As if this isn’t excitement enough, we have the Wheelchair Rugby League Grand Final to look forward to on Sunday, in Gillingham – and what an intriguing match it is.

Leeds Rhinos are chasing the ‘treble’, having also won the Challenge Cup and the League Leaders’ gong. They will be seen as hot favourites against Leyland Warriors, who upset the form-book by accounting for giants Argonauts in their semi-final. But the Rhinos, who had to hang on for victory in their own semi-final, against Halifax, should guard against hubris – this match promises to be a real thriller, and one that’s worth getting to. In fact, a weekend in the south of England is highly recommended because, the previous day, Rosslyn Park RUFC host an attractive double-header, starting with the London League Grand Final between Brixton Bulls and Medway Dragons at 4.30pm. That match is followed at 6.30pm by the Southern Conference League Grand Final, in which London Chargers and Wests Warriors clash. Compelling reasons to be in the capital, methinks.

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