OPINION: Should there be a clear pathway between League One and the NCL?

Steven Hughes
London Skolars League One

As it stands, there is no clear pathway between the National Conference League and League One, which forms the gap between part-time rugby and amateur rugby.

Over the years, we have seen several League One clubs fall in the Challenge Cup to NCL-based sides. There have been two this year, with Castleford Lock Lane beating Oldham, and Hunslet Club Parkside winning at London Skolars.

It proves that on the pitch, there is not a lot between some of the clubs from League One and clubs from the NCL. Although, it is a different type of challenge doing it in a one-off cup match compared to a league campaign.

Background of League One and NCL

The idea of a third tier in rugby league has come and gone over the years. It was not until 1991 that a proper third tier was established. It was scrapped in 1993, and then brought back as part of the restructure for the Super League.

However, in 1999, the second and third tiers merged to create the Northern Ford Premiership. The third tier then made a return in 2003 under the name National League Two.

The second and third tier have since taken many forms, including a three-tier league which was only lasted a couple of years. The three-division tier is the closest thing seen to a pathway between semi-professional rugby and the amateur game.

NCL clubs also had the chance to play in the League One Cup when that was around between 2015 and 2017. They took the place of non-English sides Toulouse and Toronto in the competition.

Meanwhile, the NCL has been around since 1986, and whilst it has always been considered the step below the professional game and the amateur one, there has never been promotion or relegation up from it.

Could an NCL side be more competitive?

Over the last couple of years, we have seen West Wales win just one game since their move to Llanelli. That saw them defeat Coventry 44-16 in 2019.

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Last year, they brought in a couple of high profile players, in the shape of Rangi Chase and Gavin Henson. However, that did not work out, with Chase leaving for Rochdale soon after, and Henson would struggle with injury.

You do have to wonder if an NCL side would be more competitive in the league.

There are recent examples of clubs going in and making an impact. London Skolars and Coventry Bears, now Midlands Hurricanes, have both been competitive in League One.

The Hurricanes have been building year-on-year since they were admitted to League One, with an eighth place finish in 2021 their best so far.

Meanwhile, the Skolars were admitted to the third tier back in 2003, as part of the third National League. Their best season came in 2013, when they finished fourth, but missed out on promotion via the playoffs.

Maybe bringing in another tier to bridge the gap could help with that. It worked for the Skolars, and the next club like that could well be waiting in the wings in the NCL.

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