At the risk of repeating ourselves, the battles at the bottom do continue to grab the headlines but in National Two West, it could be a crucial period for that particular title race. (Photo Credit: Izzy Poles/BUCS)

National One

Over the last few weeks, there have been times when results in National One have felt fairly seismic. At the heart of this have arguably been Leicester Lions, whose renaissance has seen them go from the foot of the table at Christmas to four points clear of the bottom two.

Sale FC have also played their part with back-to-back wins lifting them out of the relegation places but perhaps Round 18 provides one of Cinderford or Blackheath with a chance to claim their own, important victory.

Granted, Blackheath did kick off 2024 with an eye-catching success away at Sedgley Park but ‘Club’ haven’t been able to build on that. Three successive defeats against the aforementioned Leicester Lions and Sale FC – as well as Darlington Mowden Park – have kept James Shanahan’s troops floating above an unwanted fight for survival.

Their recent setbacks will be a source of frustration considering they have come against sides around or below them in the table, but Blackheath have an opportunity to put that right this weekend when they visit Cinderford.

Like Blackheath, Cinderford also picked up a notable win in January after they fought back from 15-3 down to defeat Darlington Mowden Park but last week’s loss to Sale FC would have been a blow to their own survival bid.

As things stand, Blackheath are six points clear of the bottom two while Cinderford are just two points above the trapdoor so victory for either side on Saturday would be most welcome as the battle to stay in National One continues to intensify.

Propping up the division are Taunton Titans, who could only watch on last week as their rivals above them fulfilled games in hand. Now everyone has played 17 matches, it leaves Tony Yapp’s side six points from safety ahead of their home tie against Sedgley Park (6th) this weekend.

After a fifth straight loss last time out against Richmond,  Bishop’s Stortford are the other occupants of a relegation place and they will be desperate to stop the rot but that is easier said than done against title-chasing Rams (2nd). Elsewhere, the two clubs heading in the right direction – Sale FC and Leicester Lions – have home fixtures against Plymouth Albion (3rd) and Birmingham Moseley (4th) respectively.

At the top, Chinnor returned to the summit following their battling win over Sedgley Park last weekend and Nick Easter’s side will be looking to maintain their four-point cushion when they kick off Round 18 against fifth-placed Rosslyn Park under the Friday night lights of Kingsey Road.

Also in National One, it is eighth vs seventh with Darlington Mowden Park hosting Richmond.

National Two North

If you are of a Hull Ionians or Billingham persuasion, Round 18 does feel massive. The magnitude of the clash between the two teams at Brantingham Park on Saturday may well have been racing through the minds of both sets of coaches, players and supporters all week as the scrap to stay in National Two North prepares for arguably its biggest fixture to date.

Last weekend saw the I’s trade places with Billingham as their losing bonus point against Sheffield Tigers lifted them out of the bottom two for the first time since the beginning of November.

By all accounts, their performance in defeat was certainly encouraging but Hull Ionians’ target is to now halt a run of 10 straight losses against their main relegation rivals.

Billingham’s slide down the standings has similarities to that of Hull Ionians but the North-East club no longer have their heads above water after falling into the drop zone following last week’s loss at Wharfedale. After winning four of their first six games, Peter Evans’ side haven’t won any of their last 11 matches, with their last victory actually coming against Hull Ionians at the start of October.

With just one point separating the pair, the importance of coming out on top in Round 18 won’t be lost on either side but who will be able to give their survival hopes a major shot in the arm?

Below Hull Ionians and Billingham in the standings are Huddersfield who sit 10 points from safety (with a game in hand) as they prepare to host Tynedale (7th) while Preston Grasshoppers’ (10th) meeting with Hull (9th) has an element of intrigue attached to it with the victor potentially taking a huge step away from any relegation conversation.

Elsewhere, Lymm (11th) will be aiming to halt a run of three consecutive losses but that won’t be an easy task when they visit an in-form Sheffield (3rd).

At the summit, Leeds Tykes stretched their advantage to 11 points last week after a 10-try victory over Hull and they resume their march towards promotion with a home clash against Sheffield Tigers while Rotherham Titans (2nd) travel to fourth-placed Fylde, which could be a tricky hurdle to overcome. Also in Round 18, Wharfedale go to Otley.

National Two East

Rewind to the start of October when Guernsey Raiders (11th) and Worthing (12th) met at Footes Lane. For hosts Guernsey, victory made it three wins from their first six games – which represented an excellent start to the season – but what followed for Jordan Reynolds’ side saw the foundations they had built come crumbling down.

Just one victory from their next seven matches saw Guernsey drop down the standings and it left them with work to do coming into 2024. However, the Raiders’ resurgence has been clear for all to see as three consecutive triumphs have steered them away from any serious relegation trouble.

Last week’s success at Old Albanian moved Guernsey 13 points clear of danger and this Saturday, they have a chance to nudge themselves closer to another season in National Two East when they renew acquaintances with Worthing.

If Guernsey are on the road to safety perhaps that road is beginning to come into view for Worthing. A heartbreaking loss against Canterbury in Round 17 could well have hurt the confidence and belief of Fred Pierrepont’s side, but their character and determination shone through last time out as a late Tom Derrick penalty sealed a precious win for the Sussex outfit.

That victory – just their fourth of the season – moved them four points clear of the drop and with rivals Wimbledon drawing to North Walsham,  Worthing’s destiny is now in their hands. Back-to-back home wins for the first time this term could be crucial.

The bottom six are all in action against one another in Round 18 with Guernsey’s trip to Worthing the standout tie. Elsewhere, North Walsham (14th) will be looking to build on their aforementioned draw with Wimbledon when they host Sevenoaks (10th) while Wimbledon  who currently occupy a relegation spot – take on Old Albanian (9th).

As for the top, league leaders Esher return to action by hosting Bury St Edmunds (4th) as they look to maintain or even extend their four-point gap at the summit. Peter Winterbottom’s troops have a game in hand over their nearest challengers and are targeting an 11th successive win but the last team to defeat the title hopefuls were Bury back in Round Six.

Bury, themselves, are 10 points behind Esher while in between the pair are Barnes (2nd) and third-placed Dorking. In terms of Barnes, they will be aiming for a sixth win from their last seven games when they face Westcombe Park while Dorking will be looking for a reaction against Canterbury after back-to-back defeats.

Elsewhere, Henley Hawks travel to The Slade to face Tonbridge Juddians as fifth meets sixth.

National Two West

Following a sticky spell just before Christmas, National Two West league leaders Luctonians have once again displayed their title credentials as they enter a potentially crucial segment of their campaign. Three successive maximums for the table-toppers leaves them six points clear but arguably their next two fixtures at Mortimer Park could be vital to their aspirations.

Ryan Watkins’ men close out February by hosting second-placed Dings Crusaders but before that, Exeter University (3rd) are their guests this weekend. It is easy to forget the Devonshire outfit are competing on two fronts due to their BUCS Super Rugby commitments (the top tier of university rugby) but Exeter have done a splendid job of balancing their duties on a Wednesday with the demands of National Two West.

Gareth Elliott’s side are well-positioned to win the BUCS Super Rugby league title while in National League Rugby, they have won four of their last five matches. The Green and Whites are 14 points off their opponents on Saturday and Lucs – along with Dings – are threatening to glide away from the rest of the field, but an Exeter win in Herefordshire could halt that notion.

Speaking of Dings, other than National Two North league leaders Leeds Tykes, they are on the longest unbeaten run across levels three and four and this weekend they travel to bottom-of-the-table Dudley Kingswinford aiming to stretch that sequence of results to 13 matches.

The rest of the top six – Hinckley (4th), Clifton (5th) and Camborne (6th) are all level on 58 points so the jostling is set to continue in Round 18, especially with Hinckley facing Camborne in the Midlands while Clifton visit Hornets.

Elsewhere, Newport (Salop) – who sit in the relegation zone and 11 points from safety – continue their fight for survival against Old Redcliffians (8th) while Redruth (7th) entertain Chester and Loughborough Students go to Bournville. 

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