Rugby League: Six new teams join the Conference

THE RUGBY LEAGUE Conference, one of the game's success stories in its first full season last year, has expanded by six new clubs for 1999. The competition, based outside the code's traditional areas, will consist of 20 teams this year, with clubs in Crewe, Derby, Hemel Hempstead, Manchester, Nottingham and Wolverhampton joining in. Two more, from Coventry and Newmarket, have been put on hold until next year.

"It is a sign of the growing self-confidence that this wonderful sport is finally displaying," said the Conference's chairman, Lionel Hurst.

The expansion means that the Conference will be played in four regional groups of five teams each this summer, culminating in a play-off series, like the inaugural one won by the Crawley Jets in 1998. They will start their campaign on 8 May, against Hemel Hempstead, whose inclusion in the competition is one of the most intriguing aspects of yesterday's announcement. Hemel, well established pioneers in their area, have been playing in the Rugby League Alliance and are earmarked to join the Rugby League itself in 2000.

Their season in the Conference is therefore seen primarily as a staging post. "We fully expect that they will be with us for only one season," said Hurst, who added that Hemel's playing strength would be controlled by qualification rules to prevent the possibility of them running away with the title.

Hull's Great Britain centre, Alan Hunte, is again being linked with a possible move to Warrington before the start of the Super League season. Hunte moved to Humberside from St Helens last year but has not settled and was previously close to switching to union.

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