The RFL have confirmed the preferred structure of the 2021 season for Betfred Championship and League 1, and also a new format for the AB Sundecks 1895 Cup.

The clubs held a virtual meeting last Friday, and while agreeing on the need to maintain flexibility given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, all recognised the importance of providing players and supporters with a clear plan.

The intention is for the season to begin with the return of the Betfred Championship on the weekend of February 27-28 – meaning a first fixture in more than 11 months for 14 clubs including Newcastle Thunder, who will take the place vacated by Leigh’s elevation to the Betfred Super League.

Clubs have already agreed that games played behind closed doors will be streamed live on the RFL’s Our League platforms (app & website) on a pay per view basis, allowing supporters to watch fixtures even if they cannot attend in person – with home season ticket holders given free access to the live stream packages for their club’s league games.

The opening Championship round will be followed by the first two rounds of the Challenge Cup on the first two weekends of March, with the 10 clubs from Betfred League 1 kicking off their campaigns in the First Round joined by four Championship clubs, to produce seven winners who will join the other nine English Championship clubs in the Second Round the following week.*see notes below

That will produce eight winners who will contest four Third Round ties two weeks later to join the 12 Betfred Super League clubs in the last 16 in April.

Those four teams will also qualify for the semi finals of the AB Sundecks 1895 Cup, the competition introduced for non-Super League clubs in 2019 to provide a second and more realistic opportunity of playing on Challenge Cup Final day at Wembley.

In 2021, the AB Sundecks 1895 Cup semi finals are again scheduled to be played on the same weekend as the Challenge Cup semi finals in June, with the Final at Wembley on Saturday July 17.

The late February start will allow a 26-round campaign in the Betfred Championship, meaning each of the 14 clubs will be scheduled to play the other 13 home and away – leading to a Play-Off for the top six teams, and the £1M Game in October.

Full details of the league campaign will be determined early in the New Year, when a decision will also be made about whether it is practical to hold the Betfred Championship Summer Bash in 2021.

Betfred League 1 will be an 18-round competition, with each of the 10 clubs playing the other nine home and away. Details of the Betfred League 1 Play-Offs, and of promotion and relegation between the two competitions, will be confirmed in the New Year.

It has also been agreed that the league table in each competition will be determined on a points percentage system, as with Betfred Super League in 2020, in recognition of the likelihood of Covid-19 remaining a factor. Again, full details of this will be finalised in the New Year, along with the testing procedures for clubs.

Toulouse Olympique will not participate in the Challenge Cup or the AB Sundecks 1895 Cup in 2021.

The draw for the First and Second Rounds of the Challenge Cup has been scheduled for w/c 4 January. The four Betfred Championship clubs taking part in Round One are Newcastle Thunder, Oldham, Whitehaven and Dewsbury Rams.

Fixtures for Betfred Championship and League 1 are scheduled to be announced in mid-January.

2021 schedule – summary

February 27-28: Betfred Championship, Round 1

March 6-7: Challenge Cup, Round 1

March 13-14: Challenge Cup, Round 2

March 20-21: Betfred League 1, Round 1

March 27-28: Challenge Cup, Round 3

April 9-11: Challenge Cup, Round 4 (Betfred Super League clubs enter)

June 5-6: Challenge Cup and AB Sundecks 1895 Cup Semi Finals

Saturday July 17: Challenge Cup Final and AB Sundecks 1895 Cup Final (Wembley)