A local derby on a Friday night, second vs first, a record crowd expected and Christmas just around the corner – The latest instalment of Chinnor against Rams has all the ingredients to be a cracker. (Photo credit: Paul Clark)
Another Friday night under the lights and what may well be the most highly-anticipated derby day meeting in recent times is braced for its latest chapter.
The rivalry between Chinnor and Rams RFC has continued to develop since both clubs worked their up to National One and as we prepare for the final round of action before the league pauses for Christmas, the upcoming 80 minutes of rugby could be one of the most significant contests in the history of this fixture.
The third tier of English rugby really is the gift that keeps on giving. After a quite astonishing title race in 2022-23, the drama and unpredictability of National One has found a way to go up a gear this term which has led to a mouthwatering prospect between the division’s top two.
As things stand, Rams and Chinnor are the leading pair with the Berkshire outfit one point clear of their rivals ahead of a trip to Kingsey Road. Both clubs have ‘Played 13, Won 10, Lost 3’ and whoever comes out on top in Oxfordshire on Friday night will be number one at Christmas.
The incentive is there. A chance to be in pole position going into 2024, but Rams boss Seb Reynolds has been in this game long enough to know one result won’t necessarily rule them all.
The result of the weekend was…🤔
— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) December 11, 2023
“We know the fixture has built up over the last couple of weeks,” says Reynolds. “Both teams have kept winning and it has resulted in a top-of-the-table clash but also as well, it is only halfway through the season. There is still so much to play out.”
Rams know all too well about it being a marathon rather than a sprint. Last year, alongside Sale FC and eventual champions Cambridge, the race for promotion went right to the wire. Reynolds’ side finished level on 114 points with Cambridge (a remarkable total in its own right) but the Blood and Sand went up to the Championship because they achieved a higher number of draws (1) than Rams.
The finest of margins in an intense National One campaign and despite that relentlessness to churn out victories, Reynolds feels the level of competition has gone up again this season. Rather than a league title being the sole focus, the desire to improve and concentrate on the task in hand has consumed Rams’ thinking.
“Look, you wouldn’t change where we are now,” Reynolds says when asked about being top at the halfway point of the season. “I think what I would say to that is just how good National One is. I think it is arguably the best league in the country at the moment.
“Last season was last season. It was a really competitive year and the club did well and it went the way it went. You move to this year and it is a highly competitive level again. There are some different teams knocking around the top now like Plymouth, like Chinnor.
“For us, we had to zero in on what we needed to improve on. There were some real key areas that we felt we had to get better at and we’ve had new players come into the side too. That all takes some time to bed in.
“If you sort of focus on the things you can’t control, things get away from you so you can’t worry about whether you’re going to be at the top or bottom or whatever. We want to keep progressing and focus on the things we want to improve on and that is what we have been doing week in, week out.”
So what about hosts Chinnor? Well, they aren’t quite Rams’ noisy neighbours but their form this season has certainly led to followers of National One having a peek over the Kingsey Road fence to get a better idea of how the Black and Whites have managed to turn their fortunes around in the space of 12 months.
Last December, the club unveiled former Harlequins and England star Nick Easter as their new Director of Rugby and at the time, Chinnor sat one point above the relegation zone.
However, since then, the only way has been up.
“Well, straight away the environment was broken last year,” Easter, who went on to steer Chinnor to an eighth-place finish last season, says. “Without wanting to give you a hold host of reasons, it was dishonest so we just needed an element of honesty.
“It’s like, guys won’t keep their place if they are not performing. The guys know where they stand selection-wise and I have always been upfront with them. I found throughout my career, you will have disgruntled people in your environment and everyone wants to play and everyone wants to play this week. As long as they know what they have got to do to try and get into the team, that is as fair as you can be.
💼 Accepting the job
📽️ Analysing match footage
🖤 Chinnor’s one club feel
⏱️ Working towards opening game
— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) December 21, 2022
“Allied to that, they might be part-time rugby players but they want professional input. Given my background in playing and coaching professionally at four different clubs, I was hoping to give them that level of detail and training quality and they thrived and they have loved it.
“They could see growth and improvement and ultimately, whenever you do something, you want to see improvement. You want to see yourself getting better and that motivates you to turn up again, and again, and again.
“Also the other thing is we needed a decent pre-season. When I came in, it was iced off the entire December. We had two training sessions before my first game. Having a pre-season as well in terms of what we want to try and achieve has helped massively.”
Easter also points to ‘sorting out the set-piece and defence’ – as well as recruitment – when explaining how Chinnor have turned their ship around.
The signings of standout names such as George Merrick, Alun Walker and George Worboys (on loan from Bath) may suggest promotion was on Chinnor’s radar at the start of the season, and Easter didn’t shy away from discussing the club’s ambitions.
“We always targeted top four this year,” he continues. “If you look at Friday night, it has got the same amount of points as any other game.
“Once we come back from the Christmas break, I think I am going to meet the board in January and see what the lay of the land is and what the plan might be whether we are good enough and lucky enough to clinch top spot or not. Ultimately, you want to be competitive. You’re in it to win it but there has to be some planning ahead.
“If we don’t [finish top] we know where we stand because we know how to run a really successful rugby club in National One but to answer your question, I would be disappointed to be outside the top four given how well pre-season had gone and how pleased we were with our recruitment.”
Whilst recruitment from both sides has been strong – with Rams securing the services of former London Irish trio George Makepeace-Cubitt, Ben Atkins and Calum Scott as well as half-back pair Ed Hoadley (London Scottish) and Fraser Honey (Cornwall captain and ex-Redruth) – in the case of Chinnor, creating a leadership group has been another key element behind their resurgence.
For Easter, it goes back to the attitude of his players. It helps create a culture of responsibility, and embracing additional duties and setting standards is now an important part of the Chinnor fabric.
At its core is captain Willie Ryan while new faces Merrick, Walker and Worboys are involved alongside scrum-half Luke Carter and other influential members of the squad such as prop Josh McNulty.
“What was really important last year – and has really helped this year – is you’re developing a leadership group so as much as on a Tuesday it is more coach-led, Thursday and Saturday is very much; ‘Right, this is the plan, this is how simple it is, these are the messages, you keep on task’,” Easter says.
“These are guys not just with experience in other leagues but guys who understand, under pressure what to do. It doesn’t matter if you have been in Nat1 all your life or whether you have experienced a higher level of rugby, from my side of it, to have that leadership group, you have got to be able to think clearly under pressure, to term Sir Clive Woodward, and deliver the goods.
“Look, we have fallen away in games sometimes and I think that has all led to a more accelerated growth amongst the leadership group because they have to understand they have got to trust in the process and I suppose there was no better example of that than last week [where Chinnor came from 21-5 down at home to win 27-24] against Birmingham Moseley.”
And that mindset to stand up and be counted is something which also applies to Rams.
Wins full of character against Plymouth Albion [December 2nd] and Richmond [December 9th] were two tricky fixtures successfully negotiated by the table-toppers but those hard-fought victories came after their ‘worst’ run of form for almost seven years.
A trio of defeats across October and November against Leicester Lions, Darlington Mowden Park and Sale FC, respectively, threatened to derail their momentum but it seems as though Rams are back on track.
Ranking the 21 previous league games between the sides! pic.twitter.com/YJ39DGw4MM
— Rams RFC (@Rams_RFC) December 13, 2023
“If you look at the context of the games, two of them were final play where we were going for the win and one of them was a red card,” explains Reynolds.
“It is really important you don’t get crazy excited when you win games and think you’re the business and you don’t get too down when you lose. As is always the case when we lose games like that, you have those honest conversations but also you have to credit the opposition.
“If you could win every week, it would be great but it would be boring! You’ve got to have those ups and downs and definitely in this league, that is reflected in the sheer competitiveness of this level of rugby.
“Richmond away and Plymouth at home, these kinds of games will definitely focus the mind. If you look too far ahead and start thinking this, that and the other, you will get caught out by it so the focus turns to Friday night and another exciting battle with Chinnor.”
It is fair to say the way both clubs have performed this season has bred an extra edge to this weekend’s fixture.
Outwardly, there has rarely been any noticeable over-the-top hostility between the sides but bragging rights have belonged to Rams in recent times. Reynolds’ troops have won six of the last seven meetings – including the most recent clash back in September where the league leaders fought back from a slow start to triumph 29-19.
Thirty miles may separate the two clubs but there is a similar distance between fierce rivals Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints or to use an example from football, between Manchester United and Liverpool.
This certainly means something.
“People are flying back from holiday, board members and sponsors and regular supporters just to come here on a Friday night,” Easter says. “I think a few from Dubai, France and America actually!
“It is a big derby. They are a rival. Both sides pretty much came up the leagues together but it is a new game. When that whistle goes, you’ve still got to catch the ball, you’ve still got to carry, you’ve still got to exit. It is not like; ‘Well we did that well five years ago so that is going to happen again!’ It sounds boring but you can’t hang on to things like that as a player, recent history, what happened last time. Every moment is different.”
The details and statistics about past encounters between the pair also means very little to Reynolds: “I always find that it doesn’t really have an effect on the context of the game particularly with this kind of fixture.”
And because of the form both teams carry into Friday night, that statement very much rings true.
As Rams’ media guru Rich Ashton pointed out on the club website, Chinnor have won eight of their last nine games – the best sequence of results by any side in National One over the same period – while Rams take the trip up the M40 on the back of four straight victories.
The carrot of being on top of the tree at Christmas is evident for all to see and whilst it will be blood and thunder for 80 minutes, the whole occasion will also hopefully showcase everything that is good about National League Rugby.
The last five fixtures between the sides have seen an average attendance of just over 800, with Chinnor expecting a record crowd in excess of 1,500 for Friday night’s highly-anticipated encounter.
“The only other Friday night I have experienced was my first game against Rosslyn Park [back in January],” says Easter.
“I was very impressed with that. I think they’ve pulled out the stops this time. They’ve brought in a local DJ, Swifty [Nathan Swift], and a few other bits are on as well to create a party atmosphere.
IT’S MATCHDAY 🚨
The Wait Is Finally Over 🎉
Tonight we face @rams_rfc in one of the biggest games in the clubs history 🏉
Our U13’s host Rams U13’s from 6pm in the evenings curtain raiser. Enjoy the experience!! Please come down early and cheer them all on. pic.twitter.com/eckjWfQjfj
— Chinnor RFC Thame (@ChinnorRFCThame) December 15, 2023
“Like you say, the 80 minutes is the priority but actually, as a coach, up to and before the warm-up, you can get a feel for what is going on around the ground and certainly after the game as well. Hopefully it is all set up to be a real humdinger.”
“I always make the point that these Friday night fixtures were Chinnor’s idea in the first place and it is a fantastic idea,” Reynolds adds.
“The players absolutely love it. When the lights come on, the atmosphere builds and I am sure they will have a bumper crowd on Friday night. Our travelling support has been superb.
“We took a massive crowd to Richmond and the players were bowled over by the noise and support they had there so hopefully the Rams supporters will come out in force on Friday night and make for an incredible atmosphere at Chinnor and nothing short of what this league deserves.
“For us, you can’t look at the fixture and not be excited but the reality is we are only halfway through the season. I think Chinnor will be bang up for the game as will our guys and we will see where the land lies come Christmas.”
Elsewhere in Round 14…
National One: Bishop’s Stortford (9th) v Blackheath (11th), Darlington Mowden Park (8th) v Sale FC (12th), Leicester Lions (14th) v Cinderford (10th), Rosslyn Park (4th) v Richmond (7th), Sedgley Park (5th) v Birmingham Moseley (6th), Taunton (13th) v Plymouth Albion (3rd).
National Two North: Fylde (6th) v Preston Grasshoppers (11th), Huddersfield (14th) v Lymm (8th), Hull Ionians (13th) v Hull (10th), Otley (9th) v Leeds Tykes (1st), Rotherham Titans (2nd) v Wharfedale (3rd), Sheffield (4th) v Sheffield Tigers (5th), Tynedale (7th) v Billingham (12th).
National Two East: Esher (1st) v Westcombe Park (9th), Henley (4th) v Old Albanian (8th), North Walsham (14th) v Bury St Edmunds (5th), Sevenoaks (10th) v Guernsey Raiders (11th), Tonbridge Juddians (6th) v Canterbury (7th), Wimbledon (13th) v Barnes (3rd), Worthing (12th) v Dorking (2nd).
National Two West: Chester (10th) v Newport (Salop) (13th), Clifton (4th) v Dings Crusaders (2nd), Dudley Kingswinford (14th) v Bournville (11th), Hinckley (5th) v Loughborough Students (9th), Hornets (12th) v Exeter University (6th), Old Redcliffians (7th) v Luctonians (1st), Redruth (8th) v Camborne (3rd).
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