Northern Rail Cup needs a sensible structure


John Kear has blasted the current Northern Rail Cup format, and I honestly cannot blame him for doing so.

The Northern Rail Cup should be a thriving competition that sets out to give all semi professional clubs a chance of achieving silverware.

The only other cup competition which semi professional clubs compete in is the Challenge Cup, and even the most deluded person (and there are plenty of them in rugby league) would struggle to convince anyone a Championship side will win that nowadays.

Therefore the Northern Rail Cup final is the mid-season highlight in the current calendar. Similar to football’s Carling Cup, it gives teams the chance to put aside their league campaign and focus on a fresh competition. 

Obviously I’m not suggesting our top flight clubs should be invading what is rightfully a Championship cup competition. It gives players a chance to have a psychological break from a long league competition.

But the current format has come under scrutiny from the current Batley boss, Kear. Two pools of 10 currently play only four games each. Two matches against Championship opposition and two against Championship 1 opposition. The top four teams go into the quarter finals unseeded, meaning the winners of each pool could play their quarter final away from home and against a team in the same group.

The current format devalues the competition. In a 10 team pool, the final standings don’t show how well each team has performed against other clubs in that group. They are, after all, only playing four games each. And that makes the pool stages feel incomplete after those four rounds.

As for who qualifies, I’ve no problem with the top four from each pool entering the quarter finals. I take serious issue with the fact the quarter final ties are not decided on finishing position in the pools.

Winner of pool A plays the fourth placed team in pool B, runner up of pool A plays third placed team in pool B, winner of pool B plays fourth placed team in pool B, and the runner up of pool B takes on the third placed team in pool A. How difficult is it to arrange that?

Very according to the RFL, and under the current format the top four teams from each pool are placed in a pot and ties are picked out at random. 

If you’re going to have pool stages in a competition, then unless only one team qualifies from each group the higher placed teams should have home advantage going into the next round. 

So as we’ve proved the current format is flawed, but luckily a new structure will be on its way in 2013. With the introduction of four new semi professional sides entering Championship 1 next season, the format has to change for the better.

We at Love Rugby League have devised a new competition format to pitch to the RFL.

With four new teams being added to the current crop of 20 Championship sides, we will have a 24 team cup competition. Hopefully Toulouse won’t grace our presence until they are welcomed back into the English system, and the four new teams will be ready to go by February. 

With a 24 team competition you have a few options when it comes to the group stage. Do we go with six groups of four teams, or four groups of six teams?

With the Championship increasing to 14 teams next season, using four groups of six teams home and away is an additional 10 games on top of the 26 Championship sides will be playing home and away in the league. That’s 36 games before we even get to the knock out stages, league play offs and Challenge Cup ties.

Therefore it makes sense to go with six groups of four clubs each. Three games at home and three away is less of a burden on the players themselves, plus it boosts the purse strings of Championship 1 clubs who will only be playing in a 10 team league.

In the early years of the Northern Rail Cup (or the Arriva Trains Cup as it used to be known) groups of four were regionalised. This generally generated groups of fierce local derbies. Despite a few one sided games, there was also the odd upset in the early rounds.

On the basis of regionalising the six groups, Love Rugby League came up with the following:

Pool A

Pool B
London Skolars

Pool C
South Wales
North Wales

Pool D

Pool E 

Pool F

(* Denotes team favourite to be admitted to Championship 1, but not confirmed. Added for simplicity and arguments sake)

With 14 teams set to make up the Championship leaving just 10 in Championship 1, it would be impossible to ensure each group consisted of two higher tier and two lower tier teams. The only other option to ensure fairness in the group structure is to have a free draw with all 24 teams pulled out of a hat prior to the season starting. 

The quarter finals will be made up of the six group winners and the two best runners up from the six pools. The runners up will be decided firstly on the highest number of competition points between other second placed sides, followed by points difference and the remaining methods of separating teams in usual league competition.

When it comes to deciding the quarter final ties, the six pool winners are placed in one bag and the two qualifying runners up placed in another. The first two teams pulled out of the first bag will receive home advantage against the two teams pulled out of the second bag, thus confirming the first two quarter final ties. The other two matches will be decided from the remaining four balls in the first bag, pulled out of the bag similar to the Challenge Cup draw in which the first team has home advantage and the following team plays them away.

From there the cup becomes a knock out competition, with the winners progressing to the next round each time. The semi final draw will have no seeded teams, and will remain a free draw as it is now.

So does this format give the competition more value, or is it after all a pointless cup with no value to the season? Do you disagree with the last 1,000 words and would you leave the competition as it is? Maybe you have another suggestion we haven’t thought of yet…

Let us know your opinions.


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