This weekend marks the final day of the National League season and there is still the small matter of deciding who goes up to the Championship and who drops down to the fourth tier. (Photo Credit: Chris Fell)
After focusing on the top of the division yesterday, we conclude with the battle for survival as four teams aim to avoid the drop on the final day.
Out of the four clubs involved in this final day scrap, Birmingham Moseley are in the best position. The Midlands outfit host fellow relegation rivals Caldy in an eagerly anticipated clash at Billesley Common on Saturday with Moseley five points clear of the drop zone.
The maths is simple. Moseley require just one point to confirm their place in National One for next season, but head coach Collin Osbourne is purely focused on a winning mentality.
“It is in our own hands and that is a positive, but we have to approach it like any other game and that is to win,” he said. “It is not like football where you can set up your team to have a draw!
“Requiring one point is almost irrelevant. We need four points and we want to win. That has to be our mindset. If we get that right, then we should expect to come out on the right side of the result.”
The positive attitude Osbourne alludes to has been on display over the last month or so. Four wins from their last six matches, including a significant 22-21 victory over Cambridge in Round 29, has all but confirmed Moseley’s safety.
— B'ham Moseley Rugby (@MoseleyRugbyFC) April 13, 2019
He added: “It [upturn in results] doesn’t come quickly and it doesn’t come easily. We have had to work very hard at preparation and mental preparation. That is probably the biggest single area for growth in all teams in the league.
“There is not a lot of difference between teams in terms of physical ability. It is more about the teams who can turn up week in, week out to perform under pressure and deliver what they have practiced. That is the challenge and the win against Cambridge came down to our mentality.”
So, with Caldy to come on Saturday, Moseley are in control of their own destiny and their opponents from the Wirral are also in the same boat.
Both sides will be targeting another season in the third tier and Osbourne admits it is vitally important for Moseley to stay in National One.
“Whatever level you are at, you want to play at the highest possible level you can,” Osbourne explained. “That is no different for Moseley in terms of the players, in terms of the fans and in terms of the business.
“Right now, that level is National One for us. In a few years down the line, maybe the ambition could be to get to the Championship but right now, it is essential we stay in National One and we believe we have the capacity to perform and it is down to the boys on Saturday that we get ourselves over the line.”
Following an excellent start to the 2018/19 season, just two wins in 16 matches saw Caldy tumble down the league table and as they entered the final month of this campaign, things weren’t looking positive.
With strong opponents in the shape of Darlington Mowden Park and Rosslyn Park to come in April, it looked like a difficult task for Caldy to spark a revival, but Gareth Davies’ side have completely turned their fortunes around.
Successive victories means Caldy head to Birmingham Moseley on Saturday two points clear of the drop so a third win on the spin would guarantee their safety in National One.
Davies told ncarugby.com: “This season has been a funny one for us. We had a really good start. We were top of the league at one point and everyone was wondering what was going on!
Caldy v Rosslyn Park
This game saw Caldy give everything to avoid relegation and win.
Caldy triumphed, the victory being all the sweeter against a club the quality of Rosslyn Park, Great rugby, great win, great day. #CaldyRUFC @rosslynpark Album https://t.co/okzplhk9Pf pic.twitter.com/xYk8jbtLjb
— BarryMacDonald (@Mac_Bazmeister) April 15, 2019
“We had that period in the middle where we suffered with injuries and that’s the reason why we struggled, but we are now getting those key lads back and up to now, the finish has been really good.
“I think we actually thrive on being the underdog and these sorts of situations. I don’t why, but it has always been the case! The lads have been exceptional the last two weeks and I couldn’t have asked anymore from them because we have given ourselves a chance of staying up this weekend.”
Caldy and Moseley met on the first day of the season and on that occasion, the Wirral side ran out 30-27 winners at Paton Field.
A similar result on Saturday would be enough to keep both sides in the division, but Davies is hoping his team can continue their recent momentum to secure a third consecutive campaign in National One.
He added: “We are all looking forward to it. Birmingham Moseley are a really tough opposition. We played them at the start of the season and only a couple of points decided the game so we’re not expecting anything less from them.
“Ideally for both teams, a four-try draw would be great! Listen, we go to win every game and we will be aiming to continue this good form. It was a shame we had this week off in between, but hopefully we can maintain it. We have had a rest so we will be recharged and ready to go.”
With Birmingham Moseley and Caldy facing off on Saturday, Cambridge need the Midlands club to do them a favour if they are to avoid relegation.
Richie Williams’ side are currently two points shy of safety and just one victory from their last six matches has left them staring at the drop as they prepare to travel to Sale FC on the final day.
Speaking on the NCA Podcast, Williams said: “We have had a very challenging year with Cambridge and we are in a position where we have to get a positive result in the last game of the season up at Sale and keep everything crossed that Moseley can help us out and get a win against Caldy.”
Cambridge had the chance to ease their relegation fears in Round 29 when they hosted rivals Moseley and despite a spirited fightback, their slow start at Volac Park cost the Blood and Sand as they were narrowly beaten just under two weeks ago.
Williams pointed to the lack of intensity from Cambridge and also believed that the pressure of the game may have affected his players.
He added: “It was pretty deflating to be honest. We talked a lot in the week about the significance of the game for the whole rugby club.
“We started the game very slowly and were 19 points down after about 25 minutes. Historically this season, the games that we have lost are the ones we haven’t started with any sort of intensity and energy.
“After doing a review of the game, I did think a lot of players probably suffered a bit from the pressure of the game. We have got a very young side. If you look at the profile of the group of players we have got, there was a clear different between us and Moseley in terms of the leaders they had scattered around their team.”
After three years at this level, everything now rests on Cambridge’s trip to Sale FC and Williams is keen for his side to focus on their own task in hand.
However, if they were to fail in their attempts to stay in National One, the Director of Rugby is confident Cambridge can bounce back to the third tier where he feels they belong.
He added: “Ultimately, we are in this position because we have not been good enough all season, but it has been one of those seasons in National One where despite us being in the bottom three, we know we can control our performance against Sale and if we can get a win, we just need to keep our fingers crossed that other results go our way.
“I think credit must go to all of the other teams in National One. The level of coaches, players and personnel is really strong so for us, if we were to keep our status as a National One team next season, that would be huge for everyone at the club.
“I think if things don’t work out and we do get relegated then certainly with the infrastructure that we have got both on and off the field, I would be fully confident we would be a National One club in National Two and we would look to really make a swift return to National One where I think we belong as a rugby club at the moment.”
Let’s be honest, the odds are firmly stacked against Esher this weekend. Mathematically, they can still pull off a remarkable escape, but they would require a bonus-point win away at fourth-placed Blackheath and other results to go their way.
The Surrey-based side have been in the third tier for the last seven seasons, but it looks as though their time at this level will come to an end on Saturday.
“It has been a frustrating season,” said head coach Tom Williams. “We have been very close on a number of occasions to putting together a string of performances only to be let down by our composure at crucial times in the game.
“Caldy away was an example and I do look back on those little moments, but in hindsight, you have got to think about the whole game and the whole season so we probably deserve to be where we are.”
Last month, Williams took full charge of first-team duties at Esher after Director of Rugby Ricky Nebbett parted ways with the club following 10 years at Molesey Road.
Since Williams has stepped into the hot seat, Esher have been able to finish the season strongly and back to back home wins over Chinnor and Sale FC have kept their extremely slim hopes of avoiding relegation alive.
“A lot of the good stuff we have done at the back end of the season has been a result of the foundations Ricky laid during his tenure,” Williams added. “He is a man of great integrity and I have got a lot of admiration for him.
**BREAKING ** Director of Rugby & Coach announcement.
"Esher is delighted to announce England, British & Irish legend, Peter Winterbottom as DOR, along with Chris Wilkins as assistant coach/head of player development. https://t.co/GtV0jhOTyu
— Esher Rugby (@esherrugby) April 3, 2019
“That’s almost why I wanted to finish the season; for his name as well. He carried the can for where we find ourselves in the league, but if you look at it, I have to hold my hands up as much as he does.
“When you look at our end to the season against Chinnor and Sale, you firstly have to credit them. Both teams got promoted and they have done themselves proud by securing their position within the league.
“In terms of beating them, it was something we needed to do but we couldn’t back it up by beating Loughborough in between and it is that concentration and decision making which has been the issue.”
Williams admits it is likely that Esher will suffer relegation this weekend, but he is keen to see his side play with freedom when they travel to Well Hall on Saturday.
Also a transition coach with Harlequins, Williams will be taking a step away from the Stoop and the National Leagues at the end of the season in order to spend more time with his family and he hopes the environment Esher has created over the last few years can be continued when Peter Winterbottom and Chris Wilkins take over the reins next term.
He added: “Going into Blackheath this weekend, I think it is exciting to have that opportunity to go out when the pressure is relatively low on us. We want to make sure we concentrate and win the key battles, but also go and enjoy it and score four tries. I just want to see some intent and ambition to express themselves so the boys can do themselves proud.
“I absolutely love Esher Rugby Club. I do step away with a heavy heart particularly as we are likely to come down. It is a pretty special and unique place and everyone is accepted and treated with respect.
“I am proud of the environment we have created and I hope that stands the club in good stead moving forward so they can build for next season.”