Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Eye On Rugby League by Tony Williams
National League Three was founded in 2003 as part of rugby league's new national structure and at the top level of the highly successful RL Conference. The original aim of this competition was the expansion of the game. Now going into its fourth year the league has shrunk dramatically, with five teams in the RL hotbed of West Yorkshire.
These clubs are Bradford Dudley Hill, Bramley Buffaloes, Dewsbury Celtic, Featherstone Lions and Huddersfield Underbank Rangers. Two other clubs are in rugby league areas with Sheffield Hillsbrough Hawks from South Yorkshire and Warrington Wizards in Lancashire. The only expansionist sides remaining are Gateshead Storm, Hemel Hempstead Stags and St Albans Centurions.
This is a far cry from the original NL3 line up. Bradford Dudley Hill, Coventry Bears, Hemel Hempstead, Huddersfield Underbank, Manchester Knights, Sheffield Hillsbrough, South London Storm, St Albans, Teeside Steelers, Warrington Woolston Rovers (now Wizards).
As Richard Lewis commented at the time, "National League Three is a key element of the RFL's drive to expand and develop rugby league throughout the country."
So what has gone wrong? NL3 has gone from a league spreading RL to new areas of the country to a league with seven of the participants in already established areas, five of them within shouting distance of each other.
With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that expecting developing clubs in areas new to the sport to commit to such a mammoth undertaking was a mistake. It is far more reasonable to expect them to develop their amateur status in regional leagues like the RL Conference. No other amateur clubs have to travel nationally regularly. Although top BARLA clubs compete in a ‘National' Conference virtually all the sides are based in Lancashire, Yorkshire or Cumbria.
This is the reason why expansion clubs have dropped out of NL3. The first loss was Crawley Jets who cut their losses before a ball had even been kicked. Inaugural Grand Final runners-up Teeside Steelers followed suit the following year. Since then Birmingham Bulldogs, Carlisle Centurions, 2003 champions Coventry Bears, Essex Eels, Manchester Knights and South London Storm have decided that NL3 isn't for them.
Maybe NL3 should undergo a change to change from being a league for expansion to becoming a sort of ‘Premier League' for amateur rugby. As RL Services Manager Niel Wood said "The major objective for National 3 has been to build a tight, competitive division where every fixture is meaningful".
This would involve the best amateur sides in the country joining up regardless of location or expansionist value. It's already half way there anyway. Of course Hemel and St Albans would still be there, as well as sides such as Bradford Dudley Hill, Bramley, Warrington Wizards etc, but also the best sides from the BARLA Conference such as Wath Brow Hornets, Leigh Miners Rangers and Hull Dockers.
And what of expansion? In my opinion the expansion of rugby league should continue to develop at RL Conference level. The Conference has done an amazing job and its Regional and Premier Leagues are full of clubs in new areas of the country which are better served developing in an environment where expansion and development, rather than outright competitiveness, is the aim..
Clubs should only be promoted above RL Conference level when they have outgrown the league, which the likes of Birmingham, Carlise and Essex seemingly hadn't. London Skolars are the perfect example, having been part of the Conference when it was founded in 1997, and becoming a professional side in National League Two.
At the moment NL3 is seen as the top level of the RL Conference, were it should be seen as the flagship of the amateur game – a tough, uncompromising division were only clubs that are fully prepared and established should enter, fully knowing that they will be competing against the best of the best in amateur RL. This would prevent new clubs going too far before they are ready.
At the end of the day, the National League Three should have close playing standards to the National League Two. It should not be a league for clubs still in the development phase – it should be for the finished article.
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