As expected, it has been a ferocious start to the National League season. National One has had more twists and turns than an Alton Towers roller-coaster, Hull Ionians have wasted little time in National Two North while National Two South is bubbling nicely.
It has been an eventful first-third of the campaign, but who has made the perfect start and who is hoping to improve their form in the lead up to Christmas?
Here’s our look at the ‘Season So Far’ across the National Leagues.
Stories and Surprises
Blackheath, Darlington Mowden Park, Chinnor, Cinderford, Caldy and Old Elthamians.
After 10 rounds of action in National One, we have had six different leaders in the division and the unpredictable nature of the third tier shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
After utter dominance from Hartpury and Coventry over the last couple years, the race for promotion is no longer a procession, but more of an enthralling contest. Currently, Blackheath lead the way, but only five points separate the top eight sides.
Five straight wins saw ‘Club’ go to the summit of the division last week and they are level on points with Old Elthamians. The second placed side are once again writing new chapters in their remarkable recent history as Gavin Lach’s men continue to impress at this level after promotion in 2017.
Sticking with the theme of ‘promotion’, Chinnor (8th) and Cinderford (7th) arrived into National One at the start of the season and both have shone in the first-third of the term. Chinnor flew out of the blocks to win their opening three games, but despite a dip in form since then, Matt Williams’ men must be satisfied with the start they have made to their debut year in National One. As for Cinderford, they returned to this level after a two-year absence and the Foresters have settled back into familiar surroundings rather well under the stewardship of Paul Morris.
You also have to add Rosslyn Park (3rd) and Caldy (5th) into the mix of sides who are progressing well. Park had a very disappointing campaign last year and ended up fending off the threat of relegation as the season due to a conclusion. However, Kieran Power’s side have been excellent this term and six wins from their first 10 matches suggests the men from the Rock have recaptured their mojo from a couple of years ago.
In terms of Caldy, Simon Verbicaks’ men are continuing to impress after their maiden season at this level in 2017/18. After cementing their place in this division, the Wirral outfit have certainly kicked on and they are very much in the promotion picture as things stand.
To round off the top eight, Ampthill & District (4th) and Rotherham Titans (5th) are also teams who are more than capable of challenging for the title this term. The A’s are being talked about as promotion candidates for the fourth year in a row and after misfiring at the start of the season, the Bedfordshire outfit are finding their rhythm once again after three straight wins.
As for Rotherham, they have also started to click into gear. Following their relegation from the Championship after a 14-year spell in the second tier, the Titans’ time in National One got off to a very slow start. However, five wins from their last six games has sparked their campaign into life and now everything seems to be falling into place for Joe Barker and his side.
National Two North
After three years in National One, Hull Ionians were relegated back into National Two North in April, but they have certainly not dwelled on their disappointment. The I’s have been superb on their return to this division and as things stand, the men from Brantingham Park sit six points clear at the summit after nine wins from their 10 matches.
But it hasn’t always been that comfortable for Hull. They have had to wrestle pole position off second placed Hinckley a couple of times as the Midlands club are once again mounting a serious promotion challenge this term. George Chuter’s side were in a similar situation 12 months ago and they will be hoping to negotiate this winter period with minimal fuss if they have ambitions of finishing in the top two.
Hunting Hinckley down are Huddersfield, Sedgley Park and Chester. Field currently occupy third spot and before last weekend’s defeat against Hull Ionians, Gareth Lewis’ men had won seven games on the bounce to catapult themselves into the promotion picture.
As for Sedge, yet again they find themselves at the right end of the division but inconsistency has seen them slip down to fifth in the table and they are now six points behind second placed Hinckley. Matt Bebbington and his side will be hoping for a string of positive results in their final six games before the Christmas break to give themselves the best possible chance of finishing in the top two for the second year running.
As for Chester (4th), the ball is in their court heading into this weekend. While every other side across the National Leagues take a break, Jan Van Deventer’s men face Tynedale in a rearranged fixture at Hare Lane. The Cheshire outfit can really put down a promotion marker this Saturday because an eighth victory of the season would see them move into the top two.
Elsewhere, two other clubs that deserve a notable mention are Wharfedale and Otley. Dale once again survived the drop last term, but they have not looked back under the reign of Rob Baldwin. The Greens have won their last three games – to move them into sixth place – and things are looking rosy at the Avenue. As for Otley, they have found it tough to sustain a position in the top half of the table in recent years so they will be pleased with their progress as they currently sit seventh, following three straight wins.
National Two South
With Cinderford and Chinnor both advancing from National Two South in 2017/18, third placed Rams RFC were one of the candidates for promotion when the campaign began back in September and Seb Reynolds’ side are very much title contenders after 10 games.
The Berkshire club have won nine matches so far, with their only defeat coming against Old Albanian in Round Four. After finishing in the bronze medal position last term, Rams RFC now sit seven points clear at the summit ahead of their next block of fixtures.
Second placed Henley Hawks have also impressed in National Two South. After a couple of years floating around the mid-table spots, the men from Dry Leas are now mounting a serious promotion challenge for the first time since they were relegated from National One in 2016.
A mention must also go to Taunton Titans and Canterbury. The Titans find themselves in the heat a promotion battle once again and they sit just one point off the top two as things stand. Tony Yapp’s side have suffered blips in form around the Christmas period over the last few seasons and they will be keen to avoid the same fate again as they aim to finally gain a shot at a place in National One.
In terms of Canterbury, Andy Pratt’s men will be delighted with their progress after two months of the season. Inconsistency has been a thorn in the side of the City Men in recent years, but they are dealing with the problem this term. Four wins from their last five games leaves them in fourth place and just two points behind Henley. If Canterbury are in a similar position by Christmas, 2019 could be a very interesting year for the Kent outfit.
Finally, two of the promoted sides are currently enjoying their campaigns in National Two South. Barnes made an excellent start on their return to this level as they defeated London Irish Wild Geese on the opening day, but after five straight losses, they have now won four matches on the trot which leaves them comfortably in ninth place.
Dings Crusaders also came up into this division and like Barnes, they have already made an impact. The Bristol-based side are one place below Barnes and five wins from their first 10 matches should be pleasing for Luke Arscott’s men considering that they only managed three victories all season when they were last in National Two South three years ago.
Who will be aiming to improve?
The obvious answer to this question is all the teams currently occupying the relegation spots, but there are also a handful of other clubs across the three leagues that will want to reignite their campaigns after this break in the season.
In National One, bottom of the table Loughborough Students are starting to spark into life after two wins from their last three games while Birmingham Moseley will be aiming for some progress over the next few weeks as the Midlands club, who were relegated from National One in 2016, sit in the danger zone as things stand.
As well as those clubs, Darlington Mowden Park and Plymouth – two of last year’s top three sides – will want to put a difficult first-third of the season behind them as patchy form means they find themselves in ninth and 11th place, respectively.
? | MATCH REPORT |
The match report for the game on Saturday against Old Elthamians is now ONLINE…
Plymouth Albion 1️⃣5️⃣
Old Elthamians 1️⃣9️⃣
— Plymouth Albion (@AlbionRFC) November 6, 2018
The bottom five teams in National Two North will be eager to end 2018 in a positive manner. Tynedale (who finished fourth last year) and Leicester Lions are struggling towards the relegation places, while South Leicester, Macclesfield and recently promoted Peterborough Lions, find themselves in the drop zone.
South made an excellent start to the campaign, but one win in their last seven games has seen them dramatically slide down the table. As for Macc, they have failed to build on recent triumphs while Peterborough Lions have just one victory to their name from their opening 10 matches.
Five points separate the bottom four sides in National Two South and recent results have added some intrigue at the wrong end of the table. Two of the four promoted clubs (Birmingham & Solihull and Guernsey) are embroiled in this early battle with the Bees sitting the relegation zone while Guernsey sit three points above the trapdoor.
Old Redcliffians and London Irish Wild Geese avoided the drop last season, but the early signs suggest they could be fighting for survival once again as both occupy a spot in the bottom three. However, with it being so tight at the foot of the division, just a couple of wins could change the whole outlook.
How will things look at Christmas?
With it being so close at the top of National One, every fixture seems to be having an impact on the title race and the matches in the lead up to Christmas are likely to have an affect on the top eight sides.
League leaders Blackheath take on fellow promotion contenders Cinderford, Chinnor and Rotherham, but if James Shanahan’s side can pass those tests – plus games against Loughborough Students and Bishop’s Stortford – it would leave them in an excellent position heading into Christmas.
Second placed Old Elthamians face Cinderford, Ampthill and Caldy over the course of the next six games while Rosslyn Park also take on the latter two sides.
The aforementioned Ampthill have to play Chinnor in a tricky festive period for the A’s with Rotherham taking on Caldy and Cinderford.
Down at the bottom, Loughborough Students only face two of the top eight sides between now and Christmas with games against Sale FC, Esher, Plymouth Albion and Cambridge to come so the Midlands club do have an opportunity to gain some positive results as they look to move off the foot of the table.
Also of note, Birmingham Moseley travel to fellow bottom three side Esher in the final weekend of November while Bishop’s Stortford, who sit just two points clear of the drop, face a tough winter period as they have fixtures against six of the top seven clubs in the division.
National Two North
On paper, Hull Ionians can really cement their position at the summit of National Two North over the next six games. Other than facing Sedgley Park in Round 11, the I’s look to have a straightforward run between now and Christmas so it is safe to say the Yorkshire side are in control of their own fate.
Promotion challengers Hinckley take on five sides currently in the bottom half over the next month so like Hull Ionians, they can really strengthen their place in the top two. Huddersfield’s fixture with Chester in Round 13 is a standout clash at the right end of the division with the latter also in action against Sedgley Park the week after.
At the bottom, Peterborough Lions will be targeting their fixtures against Macclesfield, Leicester Lions and Tynedale as they look to try and reduce the 12-point gap between themselves and safety before the New Year.
Macc may also pinpoint their visit to Peterborough Lions – as well as their game with Tynedale next week – because in December, the Blues face three of the top four sides.
In contrast, fellow strugglers South Leicester maybe focused on the end of December as crucial games against Preston Grasshoppers and Leicester Lions follow a series of tough matches. Another notable fixture sees Leicester Lions and Tynedale take on one another in Round 12.
National Two South
Rams RFC’s run to Christmas won’t be a breeze as it includes fixtures against Taunton Titans and Redruth and they maybe put under some pressure. Rivals Henley play three of the bottom four sides between now and the New Year, however, the Hawks do face Canterbury in Round 12 and this arguably the key promotion clash over the festive period.
However, it might be even more intriguing at the foot of the division. Bottom of the table London Irish Wild Geese face three of the promotion candidates so it could be a difficult month for Lee Starling’s men, with their big fixture in the run up to Christmas being away at Guernsey in Round 13.
Rivals Birmingham and Solihull also don’t have a favourable series of matches over the festive period, but a visit to Old Redcliffians just before the Christmas break could be crucial in the Bees’ survival bid.
The Old Reds actually begin this run of games with a huge clash against Guernsey next week while Clifton, who sit five points clear of the drop, face just one team in the current bottom half over the course of the next six matches.