At the half way point in the six-week home and away group stage, the Northern Rail National Leagues Cup is poised at an interesting position. Across seven groups the competition includes teams from National League One, National League Two, and four from the Rugby League Conference National, and at the end of the group stage 16 teams will qualify for the stages to follow, spread throughout the season proper.
The group stages can give an indication as to how the league season will unfold, and serve as an early indication of clubs likely to compete for promotion and be fighting for relegation. It can signal to coaches and club management of potential weakness that may require work and development for the main season, as well as being a self-contained competition in its own right.
Teams that have beaten all comers in their groups so far are Castleford Tigers relegated from Super League at the end of last season, Halifax, Widnes Vikings, and Bramley Buffaloes, with Whitehaven also being undefeated, and Dewsbury Rams and Rochdale Hornets topping their smaller groups. Teams that are struggling and who remain winless within their groups are Sheffield Eagles, Gateshead Thunder, Oldham Roughyeds, Blackpool Panthers, and London Skolars, with Dewsbury Celtic and Hemel Stags having a game in hand in which one of them will escape the bottom of their group.
Group by group, two teams will progress from each of the six National League groups, one will progress from the Conference teams group, and the three next best placed teams will also go through. This is the first season where the Cup has used an experimental scoring system in the group stages where a win is worth 3 points, a draw is worth 2 points, and a loss by 12 points or less earns a side 1 point in the group tables. Over recent weekends the new points system is starting to have a subtle effect, but it remains to be seen whether it will influence which teams make it through to the final 16.
By rights the final 16 should consist of the ten National League One clubs, five National League two clubs and one Conference club. However each year the competition throws up a few surprises