Talking Grassroots: Two new additions to the NCL

Two sets of folk are likely to enjoy Christmas more than most. 

The stalwarts of Bentley and Seaton Rangers are walking on air right now after having been admitted to the National Conference League.

I know both clubs fairly well and I’m sure that no one will contradict me when I assert that they will grace the amateur game’s flagship league.

I’ve had links with Seaton from far afield, purely in journalistic terms, for over a quarter of a century and they will be a great fit, both on and off the field.

Much has been made, rightly, of the fact that the NCL at last has a club from Workington on board (for no real reason the West Cumbrian involvement has, to date, been limited to the Whitehaven area, with such as Hensingham, Kells and, admittedly, a touch further south, Egremont Rangers and Wath Brow Hornets adorning the league) and that’s tremendous in itself. But Seaton are a top club regardless of geography and I’ve no doubt they’ll settle in nicely, especially with former player Miguel Blanco-Charters leading the organisation as a hands-on chairman. Rangers may have made history by becoming the first Workington club in the NCL. Blanco-Charters created a piece of history of his own some five years ago by become the first Cumbrian to be selected by Spain. I’d imagine he could be the last, too.

I also imagine that a keen spectator at Rangers’ first home game will be my old friend Roger Blair. Roger, who is chairman of the Iggesund Cumberland League, is a former Seaton player, who captained BARLA Great Britain four or five decades ago. He must be a very proud man right now, and rightly so.

While my links with Seaton are, of necessity, once removed given that I’m based in West Yorkshire, I’ve long experience, when I come to think about it, of Bentley – and all of it positive, although I could have done without being on the wrong end of a few scorelines against them.

I suppose I first came across them in the late 1960s, when I played for the famous Market District Boys Club Under 17s. Famous we might have been but I’m fairly sure we came out on the more miserable side of results against them, partly because they were a team of some quality and we, bluntly, weren’t.

I’ve a vague memory of getting changed in a school before we took them on at their place, and I think that was still the case when subsequently I faced them as a member of Hunslet Juniors in games that were much more closely contested.

I played against them many times at Open Age level, for Middleton Arms, and my memory is that they were a sporting outfit (at least in terms of how we all approached Rugby League in the 1970s).

Much less vague are my recollections of the Bentley Sevens. Bentley, whose ground was just over the road from Doncaster’s Tatters Field, linked up with the Dons to create a fantastic annual event, with the cup itself being played on the professional club’s ground and first round losers strolling over to Bentley’s place to contest the Plate. They really were great days.

In recent years my experience of Bentley has been as an opposing club official, with Methley Monarchs and latterly Methley Royals, in the old CMS Yorkshire League. Again, they were always very good to deal with and embraced the abiding sporting ethos of the NCL long before they applied for membership. The Conference has two good ‘uns on board, methinks.

More big news late last week was the confirmation of the 28 amateur teams that will be involved in the 2022 Betfred Challenge Cup. Bentley are in there (as Yorkshire Men’s League representatives) although Seaton are not, the Iggesund Cumberland League being represented by another giant of the far north-west, Ellenborough Rangers.

The identity of those involved is intriguing. Exactly half, fourteen in fact, hail from the NCL and I was way off the mark when I speculated, last week, that the seven teams that topped last season’s regional leagues (a one-off initiative, probably, caused by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic) would be in the mix. Of those seven, only Siddal and reigning champions Thatto Heath Crusaders are included. 2021 Grand Final runners-up Wath Brow Hornets are, surprisingly to my mind anyway, not in there, while Crosfields, Heworth, Normanton Knights and West Bowling also won’t be taking part.

That may well be down to their own choices, of course. Not all amateur sides want to take part in the Challenge Cup these days as it can turn out to be a costly business, especially if long trips to League 1 sides that don’t generally attract big crowds are involved.

I was also a shade surprised that no Student teams have been included. I’m not sure why that’s the case; it may be that the fact that Student Rugby League simply didn’t happen in 2020/21 (other than the memorable Varsity Match double-header) ruled out their involvement, although Student and College RL is proceeding as normal this season.

One NCL name in the mix that stands out is that of Milford. I’m not sure what will have flashed through the minds of the north Leeds outfit when referee Joe Stearne was assaulted by one of their players during a fixture towards the end of last season. Oblivion as a club perhaps. But Milford earned praise for how they gave immediate care to Joe (who, incidentally, is taking on a ‘double-marathon’ in January, as reported in today’s issue – back him if you can) and for their later conduct. The incident was entirely uncharacteristic of their club and it seems to me that their inclusion in the Challenge Cup illustrates that that is also the official view.

For all the welcome invitations, however, I still keep coming back to my mantra of many years. It must be a couple of decades back, I think, that an RFL official told me, in conversation, that amateur involvement was to be by qualification rather than by invitation (which is how it used to be when the various county cup winners took part) and I’d love to see a return to that, with every amateur side in the country taking part in preliminary rounds, similar to the FA Cup. Pairings would have to be largely localised of course, but I’m sure such a move would add significantly to grassroots interest in the Challenge Cup.

Meanwhile the Women’s Challenge Cup undoubtedly boosts the Men’s event, and the news that the Women’s Final will take place at Elland Road, Leeds, on 7 May, alongside the Men’s semi-finals, continues the trend of recent years and is again exciting. Women players deserve the high profile and if you doubt that assertion consider the lasses of Batley and Leeds University who, last week, cleared the home side’s pitch of several inches of snow, with the referee also getting stuck in, before enjoying a game of Rugby League. Fantastic, as the accompanying image, taken by Andrew Cudbertson, shows. Those players are a credit to the sport, even if their lot was made a shade easier by the fact that the Women’s League (together with the Pennine, Student and College Leagues) have now confirmed that contested scrums will not be reintroduced until the 2022/23 campaigns, rather than in mid-season.

Finally, the Malcolm Waite Testimonial Evening, which had been scheduled for next Saturday (11 December) has been postponed until the New Year.

Waite’s club, East Leeds, are keen to honour the man who has been at the vanguard of the club’s sustained successes since the early 1980s – superb long-term service that was recently recognised by a prestigious unsung hero award by Leeds City Council.

Ongoing Covid-19 concerns are, I believe, at the root of the postponement. Hopefully the all-clear will be given early in 2022 and Mally will be properly feted, as he should be.

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