Rugby League: Winter return for `first division' clubs

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THE PROFESSIONAL game is to make a partial return to winter in next season's Northern Ford Premiership, kicking off on Boxing Day.

The clubs in the competition directly below Super League yesterday voted, although not unanimously, to start the season with the traditionally attractive Bank Holiday games - although there will not be fixtures on Millennium Day - and play a 28-game campaign culminating in the play- offs in July. "What has been agreed is that you immediately restore two of the best supporters' days in the calendar," said the chairman of the Rugby League, Sir Rodney Walker. "It is not a move borne out of desperation, because research shows that spectators are very divided."

The League is aware of the danger of alienating support through its constant changes of format. "You can't ignore the views of fans, but if you feel you haven't got something right it's right to explore other possibilities," said Sir Rodney.

The clubs have also decided to wean themselves off their dependence on the cash allocation from News Corporation by spreading their remaining money over three seasons. The clubs will get pounds 150,000 next season, reducing to pounds 100,000 and then pounds 50,000.

The hope is that they will be able, individually and collectively, to generate their own sources of income in the meantime. To that end, negotiations with commercial terrestrial television are said to be making progress.

St Helens hope to have a new work permit for Des Clarke, the former Halifax forward, in time for him to make his debut against Castleford tonight.

Cas, aiming to consolidate fifth place and a Super League play-off spot, have Richard Gay sidelined with a shoulder injury and bring in Jon Wells.

The Castleford coach, Stuart Raper, is urging his players not to slacken. The Tigers, whose rivals for the play-offs have faltered at a crucial time in the season, can take another step towards the Grand Final series with victory against second-placed St Helens.

Raper's men have recorded four straight wins to put themselves on the brink. Castleford could afford to lose two of their last four matches and still make it, but Raper wants another whole-hearted effort in their next two matches. They meet Warrington at Wilderspool on Sunday.

He said: "I won't be happy until it's mathematically impossible for anybody to catch us. If we win our next two games, we are certain to qualify. I've told the players they can then have five days off."

The game at Knowsley Road will be preceded by the final of the Scottish Courage Cup, in which the British Army play the Great Britain students. The Army have beaten the Navy and the Civil Service on their way to the final, whilst the Students knocked out the Police and the RAF.

Leeds have had two forwards suspended, Terry Newton for two matches and Anthony Farrell for one, after separate incidents at Gateshead on Sunday.