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This weekend sees the start of the league season for UK teams in National Leagues One and Two - the divisions directly below Super League. With promotion and relegation still a part of the British system, and Super League franchises for 2009 onwards up for grabs, interest in this season's competitions will be at an all time high.
Teams have already been active this year in contesting the preliminary rounds of the Challenge Cup, and the group stages of the Northern Rail Cup. Five National League teams (Whitehaven, Barrow, Sheffield, Rochdale, Oldham) have won through to the final sixteen in the Challenge Cup, while 15 National League Clubs are still alive in the Northern Rail Cup.
But ask the coaches, players and fans at this level and it's the league season that really counts. This year the competitions have been sponsored by United Co-Operative and Sky Sports have agreed to broadcast selected National League games on Thursday evenings, starting tonight with the match between former Super League clubs Widnes Vikings and Leigh Centurions.
In National League One, ten teams are competing for the ultimate prize of a grand final win and a potential offer for promotion, and trying to avoid relegation at the other end of the scale. Castleford Tigers will be desperate to bounce back to Super League following last season's heartbreaking relegation, and along with Widnes, Leigh, Halifax and newly promoted Sheffield are one of five areas that have had a taste of Super League in the modern era. Whitehaven have been perennial bridesmaids in pursuit of promotion in recent years, and on the back of a new stadium Doncaster Lakers have made their Super League franchise intentions clear. Rounding out this competition are Rochdale Hornets, Batley Bulldogs and the newly promoted Dewsbury Rams.
In National League Two, there are twelve teams competing for two promotion spots - one automatic for the team that finishes the regular season first, the other awarded to the winner of a finals series betwen the remaining top clubs. Interest will centre of whether Welsh club Celtic Crsuaders can advance on their second attempt, having been knocked out of the finals by Swinton Lions in the dying seconds last year.
York City Knights and Oldham (who remain alive in the Challeneg Cup) drop down from the division above and could provide stiff competition, while Featherstone Rovers were there or therabouts last season and are surprise qualifiers through to this year's Northern Rail Cup round of 16. As are Hunslet Hawks by the skin of their teeth, and Barrow Raiders who are the only NL2 side to reamin alive in both Cup comeptitions. Other clubs rounding out the League Two competition are Gateshead Thunder, Workington Town, London Skolars, Keighley Cougars, and Blackpool Panthers.
The National Leagues are where success can be born, both for clubs hoping for promotion and a dream run, and for players, hoping for exposure and experience and a chance at the big time. It's not unusual for Super League clubs to loan some of their squad memebers to a National league club to gain valuable playing time and develop skills when they aren't making the top 17 on a regular basis. It's also the place where dreams and long careers can often end, and you see some strange things following a team in the National Leagues.
Grand Final day thsi year will be on Sunday October 7 at Headingley, and by then we'll know the full picture of which clubs have suffered relegation, which clubs are in line for promotion, and another whole season of community rugby league will have been and gone... until next year.
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