Radical plans to salvage lower league rugby in the New Year could see National One and Two sides pooled in a regionalised 48-team competition with no promotion or relegation.
The Rugby Paper understands a tournament that would initially see sides placed in eight groups of six, playing each other home and away before a second pool stage and then a series of knock-out rounds to decide a champion, is among a number of proposals under discussion.
Others include keeping the individual leagues as they are with sides playing each other just once in a truncated 15-match campaign, or splitting leagues into two with sides competing on a regional basis before entering play-offs to decide promotion and relegation issues.
Cash-strapped clubs are desperate to play, but any plans remain dependent on sides getting the go-ahead for full-contact – or at the very least an acceptable form of the 15-man game – and crowds being allowed, as they are now across most of non-league football.
Were the 48-team plan to be accepted, a joint National One/Two South Western pool could see Plymouth Albion, Redruth, Taunton, Guernsey, Clifton and Dings Crusaders pitched together, while in the North West Fylde, Sedgley Park, Chester, Sale, Caldy and Huddersfield would all be in close enough proximity to fulfil an initial ten-match programme prior to stage two.
Stage two would see sides participate in wider regionalised groups of four – South West & London for example – based on their finishing positions, ensuring six additional matches for each club before the top teams enter national play-offs to deliver an overall champion.
Reacting to the idea of bringing National League clubs together, Rams chief executive Gary Reynolds told The Rugby Paper: “We’d be more in favour of just playing other National One clubs, even in a diluted form, because we’d rather keep promotion and relegation.
“We’ve been fortunate to keep our squad together and we’ve got guys who hate friendlies and are desperate to compete in proper rugby, with promotion and relegation at stake. Plus, if you’re involving National Two sides, there is the potential for mismatches.
“Having said that, that is just our preference and if a joint competition is what the majority vote for, then we would go for it and not be obstructive because at a time when we’ve got this pandemic going on, you don’t want to be obstinate or quarrelsome about things.
“If promotion and relegation is put on hold for a season, I suppose that will have to be, but we would prefer to retain the competitive element if we get back playing.”
Blackheath head coach James Shanahan also wants promotion and relegation retained, but offers an alternative suggestion of how a truncated National One campaign could look.
Shanahan explained: “We obviously want rugby back and I know the RFU are working hard to deliver that, but if we are to potentially start again in January, I’d rather see 15 games in National One, then split into top eight/bottom eight for another seven to make it 22 games in all.
“That way you retain the integrity of promotion and relegation and we could run through into June and start the 2021/22 season in October. If they’re looking at reducing the leagues to 14 clubs, which we’re told they are doing, then that could work out pretty well.”