Rugby League: Clubs contemplate radical surgery: Dave Hadfield reports on proposals to be debated tomorrow aimed at ensuring a healthier rugby league

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THE Rugby League's member clubs will tomorrow debate sweeping changes intended to establish the structure of the game as it goes into the 21st century.

The main proposals in a blueprint from the League's board of directors which will go before the Council's meeting in Leeds will be a return to a two division format, just two years after a three division pattern was hailed as a major step forward for the sport, and the relegation of three clubs into the Alliance League for reserve teams.

The plan envisages a 16-team First Division for next season, to be achieved by promoting three sides from the present Second Division and relegating one. The extra games this will impose on top players already widely felt to be overburdened is seen as being counterbalanced by turning two of the game's oldest competitions, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Cups, into optional midweek affairs.

The present Second and Third Divisions will be merged for next season into a Second Division of 19 clubs, playing each other home and away in what will be a particularly crowded, and, for some of them, significant programme.

At the end of next season, the three clubs finishing at the bottom of the Second Division will be relegated to the Alliance, although they will continue to be funded by the League for three seasons.

In succeeding seasons, the two clubs finishing at the foot of the Second Division will have to apply for re-election if there are two teams in the Alliance who wish to replace them. The reserve sides in the Alliance would not be eligible to join the Second Division, however; only the previously relegated clubs or new sides entering the game via the Alliance would qualify.

The League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, said that the Alliance was envisaged as a feeder league for the top two divisions. It is seen as the root to full membership for potential clubs in new areas, 'although we don't expect people to be clamouring to join in this time of recession,' he said.

First Division clubs will be exempt from the preliminary rounds of both the Challenge Cup and the Regal Trophy. The numbers will be made up by inviting non- League clubs into those rounds.

The Rugby League is in dispute with the British Amateur Rugby League Association, Barla, the governing body for amateur rugby league, so the move can be seen as a political device to weaken Barla's hold on its own best clubs. The League's chairman, Bob Ashby, said he hoped that there would be a resolution of the dispute before the new system came into effect. If not, the League will go ahead and invite clubs anyway.

The Rugby League Council is unlikely to have digested all the implications of the document in time to wish to vote on it tomorrow, although it is open to them to do so. Far more likely is a special general meeting later this month.

In either event, the plan will be presented as a package which needs a three-fifths majority, although the board will be willing to consider amendments which do not damage its overall thrust. Also at the discussion tomorrow will be a separate document exploring the possibility of reducing the overseas quota from three players per club to two.

There is some feeling in the game that the progress of young British players, especially in positions like stand-off and centre, is being held up by the number of foreigners occupying those roles at leading clubs. Whether limiting the import of overseas players who make the domestic product look inferior will actually help it to improve is another matter.

Off the agenda, for the time being, is a suggestion that all professional rugby league, apart from the First Division, should be played during the summer.

Lindsay described that proposal as being 'too radical'. Club representatives tomorrow are likely to find the proposals that are in front of them quite radical enough to be going on with.


First Division to be increased by two to 16 teams

Second Division of 19 teams for next season only

Bottom three Second Division teams relegated to Alliance League at end of next season

Bottom two teams in Second Division to seek re-election in succeeding seasons

First Division clubs exempt from preliminary rounds of Challenge Cup and Regal Trophy

Amateur sides to appear in preliminary rounds of Challenge Cup and Regal Trophy

Reducing the overseas quota from three players per club to two to be considered

County Cup competitions to become voluntary -----------------------------------------------------------------