With the last National Two (North) fixtures played out on 14th March, it’s easy to forget the outcome of the sadly truncated 2019-20 season. All bar two of the 16 clubs completed 25 of the scheduled 30 matches. Caldy finished the season as outstanding champions with a perfect record, 25 straight victories and move back to National One.
Fylde were in 2nd place, a substantial distance behind but would ordinarily have had a good chance of making the N2 promotion play-off, most likely against N2 (South) runners-up, Tonbridge Juddians. Given the COVID-19 restrictions, it was impossible to stage the play-off so Tonbridge were adjudged to be the third promoted club as they had a slightly better record than Fylde by the mid-March cut-off. This was tough on the Lancastrians in their Centenary season but was accepted gracefully by their officials.
Scunthorpe, Preston Grasshoppers and Otley were relegated to level five Midlands and North regional leagues.
It’s useful to remind ourselves of this background when the possibility of the National League Cup tournament is now in the air. This competition will most likely involve 44 of the 48 National League clubs who have opted to join in. The structure of the tournament initially involves a regional group stage, followed by a knock out phase and, hopefully a final at Twickenham. It is hoped to begin the fixtures in February 2021.
The Groups are as follows:
Group 1: Blaydon, Darlington Mowden Park, Tynedale, Wharfedale, Harrogate
Group 2: Barnes, Chinnor, Esher, Henley Hawks, Rams RFC, Rosslyn Park
Group 3: Birmingham Moseley, Leicester Lions, Stourbridge, Luctonians, Cinderford, Hinckley, Loughborough Students.
Group 4: Blackheath, Canterbury, Old Elthamians, Tonbridge Juddians, Worthing Raiders
Group 5: Sale FC, Caldy, Chester, Fylde, Sedgley Park
Group 6: Bishop’s Stortford, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Old Albanian, Westcliff
Group 7: Leeds Tykes, Huddersfield, Sheffield Tigers, Hull, Hull Ionians
Group 8: Plymouth Albion, Barnstaple, Redruth, Clifton, Dings Crusaders, Taunton
Group 5 will be a tough challenge for Fylde. Sale FC have become well established in National One, finishing in 11th & 12th place in the last two seasons. Caldy, as previously mentioned, were rather embarrassingly far the best club in National Two (North) and are due to return to Nat One in 2021-22 after just one season at the lower level. The third Cheshire club in the Group, Chester, have performed very strongly in the last five seasons, especially at their Hare Lane ground, since their first ever promotion to National Two (North). Finally, there’s our old friends Sedgley Park. Fylde and Sedgley have proved to be Lancashire’s two strongest clubs and have had numerous excellent and close games over many years.
The doubts centre, predictably, on the state of COVID-19 in English areas and regions. With virtually all of England currently in Tiers 2, 3 or 4, a worsening pattern of infection in parts of the country and a drawn out vaccination programme through 2021, beginning the competition in February might be rather optimistic.
As it stands today (22nd December), Lancashire and Greater Manchester are in the high risk band, Tier 3, whilst Cheshire and Merseyside are in Tier 2. So Group 5 includes three clubs in Tier 3 (Fylde, Sedgley Park and Sale FC) and two clubs in Tier 2 (Caldy and Chester). The current restrictions prevent clubs travelling to play other clubs in the amended ReturntoRugby format between and across tiers. So Fylde would be unable to play any of the other four clubs unless the tiering changes and the RFU strictures on clubs crossing geographic/tier boundaries is amended. They are allowed to play other clubs in Lancashire, for instance ‘Hoppers, Blackburn, Vale of Lune or Rossendale.
On top of these restrictions is the matter of allowing crowds in to stadiums to watch games. Clubs in Tier 3 are currently not allowed to welcome spectators to any games. Without the revenues that this might bring then the clubs have a difficult decision whether they wish to take part in the Cup competition given the costs involved in staging games.
So still much uncertainty after nine months of competitive inaction. In the shadow of another wave of transmission and a variant virus, this is a very difficult time for rugby and other sports. Let’s hope for a fast introduction of vaccines, a reduction in COVID-19 cases across the country and a return to competitive games as soon as possible in 2021.