The race for promotion in National One is entering a critical stage but the title fights in National Two East and West are not laced with nerves or trepidation as Blackheath and Leicester Lions target glory. Photo Credit: (Gareth Lyons)
Cambridge watched on as league leaders Rams RFC stumbled in Round 22, and now the Blood and Sand return to action with the picture at the top very different to what it was at the beginning of March. Due to postponements and reserve weekends, their trip to Chinnor on Saturday will be just their second fixture of this month but Richie Williams’ side are now nine points off the summit with a game in hand.
Rams’ loss to Plymouth Albion two weeks ago has changed the dynamic of the title race but Cambridge’s focus will be on adding to their excellent winning run of five matches as they look to stay in the hunt. With Rams facing second-placed Sale FC on April 1st, it would be criminal if the men from Granchester Road took their eye off the ball in Round 23 and in truth, they won’t be let off the hook by a rejuvenated Chinnor.
After a forgettable February, it has been a marvellous March for Nick Easter’s troops as three successive maximums has left them on the verge of safety. The Black and Whites will provide a stern test for Cambridge at Kingsey Road, but if the promotion challengers can depart Oxfordshire with full marks, they would have successfully overcome a major hurdle in their pursuit of glory.
It feels like a significant couple of weeks in the National One title race and with the aforementioned clash between Rams RFC and Sale FC to come next Saturday, the top two will be hoping to enter that mouth-watering fixture off the back of victories.
It feels like a big couple of weeks in #Nat1 🍿
— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) March 24, 2023
Table-toppers Rams will be looking to return to winning ways when they welcome Taunton Titans (11th) to Old Bath Road while it is a trip to the North East for Sale who visit Darlington Mowden Park (9th).
There will also be a lot on the line for Leeds Tykes in Round 23 when they take on Birmingham Moseley in the Midlands. Last Saturday’s setback against Chinnor means Jon Callard’s men find themselves 14 points from safety with a game in hand so a sixth straight defeat would leave their hopes of avoiding the drop hanging by a thread.
Moseley will show no mercy, though. After beating Hull last time out, Adam Balding’s charges are eight points clear of the drop zone with a game in hand so another triumph against a side in the bottom three would only bolster their own survival bid.
Elsewhere in National One, Esher – who are currently two points from safety – travel to Hull as they aim to climb out of the relegation positions while fourth-placed Rosslyn Park host Plymouth Albion (5th) in what should be a cracker at The Rock and Bishop’s Stortford entertain Cinderford.
National Two North
The fortunes of Harrogate had been improving. Three successive home wins had given them more than just a spoonful of hope in their fight against relegation but back-to-back defeats for Martyn Wood’s side means the National Two North trapdoor is now right underneath them.
The Yorkshire outfit failed to pick up any points from their recent losses against Preston Grasshoppers and Huddersfield and in its simplest terms, they must beat Tynedale at Rudding Lane this Saturday to stand any chance of avoiding the drop this weekend.
However, their visitors from the North East won’t be an easy touch. Ben Woods’ men come into this fixture having beaten title challengers Sedgley Park and Fylde in recent weeks, but they have lost to already relegated Blaydon and 12th-placed Preston so that may provide a source of encouragement for Harrogate.
In terms of Preston – who sit directly above the bottom two – they know if they match or better Harrogate’s result when they travel to Hull Ionians (3rd) then their safety will be secured.
At the top, the latest chapter of the promotion race sees table-toppers Sedgley Park – fresh from bouncing back against Hull Ionians last week – host Huddersfield (10th) while second-placed Fylde – who are 12 points behind with a game in hand – welcome Sheffield (11th) to Woodlands.
Elsewhere to conclude March, Otley (4th) will be keen to return to winning ways when they travel to Rotherham Titans, fifth-placed Chester go to Blaydon and Sheffield Tigers take on Wharfdale at The Avenue.
National Two East
Blackheath are almost there. A 13-game winning streak has left them on the brink of an immediate return to National One. After 18 years in the third tier, relegation last term would have been tough to take for ‘Club’ but their absence looks as though it will be short-lived.
Their title charge has hardly been knocked off course. Just two defeats all season against Old Albanian and Tonbridge Juddians seem like a distant memory and the men from Well Hall know a bonus-point victory away at Westcliff will seal the deal.
The hosts couldn’t have had a more contrasting season to their visitors. The Essex club have lost all 22 of their matches this term but a young and spirited side did pick up a bonus point in last week’s loss to Old Albanian to highlight the determination this group of players still has despite having their relegation confirmed earlier this month.
On paper, everything points to Blackheath clinching the title and with head coach James Shanahan away with Cambridge for The Varsity Match at Twickenham, he will be hoping for a double celebration on Saturday night.
Blackheath Rugby travels to Essex tomorrow to play @westcliffrugby , KO 15:00. Here’s your squad#blackheathrugby #blackheathfc #club #returntorugby #blackheath #greenwich #eltham #awaygame #nat2e pic.twitter.com/FYb8BDeJpc
— BlackheathRugby (@Blackheath_1858) March 24, 2023
While promotion might be decided this weekend, the relegation battle still rages on. Looking ahead to the final four games of the season suggests there are plenty of twists and turns still to come. The main reason for this is North Walsham – who currently sit one point from safety – still have to play the three clubs directly above them in the table over the next month.
First up though, they host Dorking (4th) while rivals Rochford Hundred – who sit one place and one point ahead of North Walsham – visit Guernsey Raiders. Elsewhere, Sevenoaks – who are currently five points clear of the dreaded dotted line – take on Henley Hawks.
Canterbury are the other team that North Walsham will face on the final day of the season and while The City Men are eight points clear of the drop, they will be keen to move away from danger when they go to Old Albanian this weekend.
Meanwhile, an in-form Barnes (2nd) travel to Bury St Edmunds (5th) and third-placed Worthing Raiders are back in action against Tonbridge Juddians.
National Two West
History beckons for Leicester Lions. Sixteen wins on the bounce means they can almost taste promotion to National One and a first-ever National Two title. Gareth Collins’ men have been relentless this term, winning all but one of their 22 matches, and the Lions will be crowned Kings of National Two West if they beat Loughborough Students this weekend.
The Students will be out to spoil the party and do have the potential to make life difficult for the champions-elect. The Midlands club are unbeaten in four matches and have scored 150 points in the process so a quiet afternoon at Westleigh Park seems unlikely. Will the Lions be able to pass one final test and achieve glory?
It is also a crucial weekend at the bottom of the division as Stourbridge can be relegated if they lose or draw to Bournville at The Avery Fields. Stour are 17 points from safety with 20 left to play for while the hosts are one place above the drop zone meaning Neil Mitchell’s side will be able to dictate their own destiny on Saturday.
However, victory for Bournville would only elevate their own survival hopes as they enter the weekend five points clear of the relegation places with a game in hand.
Barnstaple are the club sitting in between the two Midlands sides and the Chiefs will be aiming to arrest a run of seven consecutive defeats when they host Redruth at Pottington Road.
Newport (Salop) and Hornets could secure their spots in National Two West for another season if results go their way in Round 23. Bob Adams’ charges will be looking to maintain their brilliant recent home form when they welcome Clifton (2nd) to Forton Road while Hornets travel to Dings Crusaders (3rd).
Elsewhere, Hinckley take on Luctonians and Exeter University go to Old Redcliffians.