Another National League season is entering its final knockings and once again, it has been a term to savour. Photo Credit: (Liela Hamilton-Dakar)
Followers of the divisions may see this as a nostalgic period of the year as the start of spring usually signifies the business end of a rugby campaign, but this stage of a season is exactly why we get up on a Saturday morning to watch and play this sport.
With March now upon us, there is still an awful lot in the balance across all three leagues and in Round 25, some questions could and will be answered.
In National One, the direction of the title race will all depend on the outcome between the leading pair on Friday night when league leaders Richmond take on Rosslyn Park in a huge clash at the Rock whilst in National Two North, Caldy can be confirmed as champions when they face Preston Grasshoppers.
Over in National Two South, the fight for promotion isn’t as clear cut with a maximum of five teams still in with a realistic chance of finishing inside the top two so expect another enthralling afternoon towards the summit of this division.
Below is a more in-depth look at some of the key fixtures in Round 25:
It is, without question, a season-defining weekend in National One. Throughout the year, the title race has gripped the division and with just six rounds left in the campaign, this Friday night could see the fight for promotion almost come to an end or it could keep this thrilling battle for a place in the Championship very much alive.
As things stand, Richmond hold a 10-point lead at the summit following a mightily impressive run of 12 straight wins. After a blip in form at the end of November, Steve Hill’s side have maintained their focus and a trip to local rivals and second-placed Rosslyn Park could be the final hurdle they need to overcome in order to make an immediate return to the second tier. The hosts on Friday night have constantly kept their neighbours in their vision, but after a defeat to Chinnor to conclude February, Kieran Power’s side know their Round 25 clash with Richmond must yield a victory or their promotion hopes could fade away for another year. The significance of this clash can’t be understated so will it be Park or Richmond who prevail?
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— Richmond Rugby (@RichmondFC1861) March 6, 2020
From the top to the bottom of National One we go and Rotherham Titans are still hanging on in there. A positive performance in defeat against Rams last time out leaves the Yorkshire club five points from safety but rivals Birmingham Moseley do have a game in hand to come after the weather disruption in recent weeks.
Thus far, Martin Jenkinson and Steve Salvin’s charges have only failed to pick up points in one fixture in 2020 which explains why the Titans’ survival bid is still alight. Rotherham’s next challenge sees them face Bishop’s Stortford, who have not played for almost three weeks. Their fixture against Cinderford was postponed last Saturday so they travel to Clifton Lane refreshed as they aim to do the double over the Titans following a 30-14 victory back in November.
Canterbury’s fate in National One was decided last weekend as their relegation back down to National Two was confirmed. A 27-10 loss to league leaders Richmond ended their short stint in the third tier, but Andy Pratt’s side will now be keen to end a really tough campaign in a positive fashion.
This weekend, the City Men have a great chance to secure just their second victory of the campaign when they take on Hull Ionians. Mike Umaga’s men do sit 32 points from safety and relegation does seem to be inevitable, but the I’s, who sit bottom of the table, do have two games in hand which is keeping them alive, for now. The Yorkshire club will know they are probably fighting a losing battle but a repeat of their 34-20 win which they achieved over Canterbury earlier in the season will delay their demotion for at least another week.
Elsewhere in National One, third placed Chinnor are still in with a shout of sneaking into the top two positions and in Round 25, they travel to Sale FC whilst Rams RFC (4th) go to Old Elthamians. Also this weekend, Blackheath visit Cinderford, Darlington Mowden Park take the trip to Plymouth Albion and Cambridge host Birmingham Moseley, with the Midlands club keen to move further away from the relegation zone.
National Two North
The champagne is on ice and the corks are ready to be popped. Caldy are on the brink of becoming the first title winners across the National Leagues and just two points from their trip to Preston Grasshoppers will seal automatic promotion for Gareth Davies and Matt Cairns’ side. The Wirral club have been untouchable this term following a remarkable run of 24 successive victories and a 103-0 thrashing of already relegated Scunthorpe last time out showed the gulf in class between the runaway leaders and the rest of the division.
Whilst this fixture holds great significance for Caldy, it is also an important game for Preston for different reasons. Paul Arnold’s side are currently 23 points from safety so if results were to go against them this weekend, they could see themselves drop out of National Two North. Hoppers are winless in seven so the odds don’t make good reading for the Lightfoot Green faithful heading into Round 25, but stranger things have happened.
— matt cairns (@matt_cairns2) March 4, 2020
If the destination of the league title has been inevitable for a large portion of this campaign, the runners-up spot in National Two North has been anything but. At one stage, it looked as though it would be a straight shootout between Fylde and Sedgley Park but no-one banked on a remarkable resurgence from Hinckley.
After an inconsistent opening 10 games or so for the Hornets, they have been pretty much faultless since the back end of November having won 11 of their last 12 fixtures. With Fylde slipping up on a couple of occasions, Hinckley are now only four points off the Lancashire club as we enter the final six matches of the campaign. This weekend, Hinckley travel to a Huddersfield side that sit seven points clear of the drop and they have only lost one of their last six which has seen Gareth Lewis’ side move out of the bottom three. The job to stay in the league is far from finished but a positive outcome at Lockwood Park would represent a huge step towards safety for the Yorkshire outfit.
Along with Huddersfield in the battle to avoid the drop are both Otley and Sheffield Tigers and the clubs face one another this weekend at Cross Green. As things stand, it is the Tigers who have their heads above water, with Jamie Broadley’s side sitting seven points clear of the trapdoor.
To see Sheffield Tigers in this position is quite surprising, given they flew out of the blocks at the beginning of the season, but a run of just one win in seven since the start of 2020 has seen them fall dramatically down the table. Otley have suffered exactly the same sequence of results and they currently occupy a spot in the relegation zone so they must see this weekend as a massive opportunity if they are to confirm their place in National Two North for a 10th consecutive season.
Also in the division this weekend, second-placed Fylde will be looking to return to winning ways when they host Luctonians whilst Sedgley Park host Hull. Elsewhere, Loughborough Students go to Scunthorpe, Stourbridge visit Tynedale and Chester face Wharfedale.
National Two South
The fight for top spot in National Two South looks to be going to the wire. As we draw closer to the conclusion of the campaign, the leading trio are still slugging it out for automatic promotion to National One. Heading into Round 25, Tonbridge Juddians are in pole position but they only hold a two-point lead over second-placed Taunton Titans as they prepare to take on Clifton this weekend.
Last week, Peter Dankert’s side regained their place at the summit following a battling win over Westcliff whilst title rivals Henley Hawks slipped up against….Clifton. The Lavender and Blacks head to the Slade in a buoyant mood and in truth, Matt Salter’s men are still in with a shout of a second-placed finish as they sit 10 points behind Taunton. Granted, the Titans do have a game in hand but Clifton have shown on more than one occasion this term how capable they are of derailing promotion hopes. They beat TJs earlier in the campaign so can the Bristol outfit show their class once again?
— Clifton Rugby (@cliftonrugby) March 4, 2020
The aforementioned Taunton will be hoping so as Tony Yapp’s side have the ball in their court. The Somerset club are on the heels of TJs, but they do have a game in hand against Esher to come next weekend which could see them move into first place if they do secure a victory at the Towergate Stadium.
However, first and foremost, they must get their job done in Round 25 and this Saturday, Taunton host Dings Crusaders. The men from Shaftesbury Park, who sit 11th in the table, come into this fixture in high spirts following successive wins over Sutton and Epsom and Bournemouth. Those victories have pretty much dragged Dings away from any potential relegation scrap, but only one of their nine wins this term has come against a side in the current top half so they will be keen to buck that trend on Saturday.
Since defeat to Redruth at the end of January, Henley Hawks have been fighting ferociously to keep themselves in the promotion picture. Three losses in their last five games have halted Nigel Dudding and Luke Allen’s side from really seizing the momentum in the title race and last Saturday’s defeat to Clifton on Dings Crusaders’ 4G surface was another frustrating outcome for the Hawks.
Nevertheless, they sit three points behind Tonbridge Juddians and this weekend, Henley host Esher as they look to return to winning ways. The visitors to Dry Leas have actually only played once in just under a month due to the horrendous weather which has hit the country, but Esher’s form guide does read five games unbeaten. Peter Winterbottom’s side are slap bang in the middle of the table but with games in hand to come, the Surrey-based side will be itching to return to action and pick up from where they left off.
Also across National Two South on Saturday, Redruth will be looking to keep their own top two aspirations alive when they visit Sutton & Epsom, who themselves are fighting against relegation whilst rivals Bournemouth host Bury St Edmunds. Elsewhere, fellow strugglers Old Redcliffians entertain Leicester Lions, Old Albanian take on Westcliff and Worthing Raiders host Barnes.