Leeds Tykes and Rotherham Titans meet on Saturday with just five points separating the leading pair in National Two North. The performance levels and consistency of these two famous clubs has been nothing short of astonishing. (Photo Credit: Gareth Siddons and John Ashton)

It was back in late November when Leeds Tykes and Rotherham Titans showcased their credentials.

“I remember saying after the game in my post-match speech to the people in the bar, that game could have befitted National One or the Championship because it was that good of a game quality-wise.”

This description offered up by Leeds Tykes Director of Rugby Pete Seabourne may confirm what some followers of National Two North might have been thinking when the halfway mark in the season was approaching.

Four months ago, both clubs entered Round 11 with a record of ‘Played: 10, Won 10.’ Something had to give in West Yorkshire.

Leeds Tykes managed to fashion a 14-0 lead as Jacob Mounsey danced his way through the Titans defence to feed Harry Jukes before Kieran Davies doubled their advantage.

Rotherham then hit back through John Okafor and the boot of the ever-reliable Lloyd Hayes to make it a one-point game.

However, the decisive period came between the 72nd and 75th minute as another for Davies and a scorcher from Jukes ultimately sealed the victory for Leeds. Okafor grabbed a second in the closing stages but it was the Tykes who marched on with a 26-20 triumph.

“It was a game that ebbed and flowed,” reflects Rotherham Head Coach Gareth Lewis. “Leeds finished the game very strongly. On the day, they were very clinical and were deserved winners.”

The clubs began that afternoon as the top two and since then, it has remained that way. League leaders Leeds are still unbeaten having won all 22 of their matches while Rotherham responded to that loss by stitching together 11 successive bonus-point victories.

The intensity and relentlessness which encapsulated that 80 minutes has been an underlying theme throughout one of the most remarkable title races in recent times.

Between the pair, they have racked up an astonishing 43 wins from a possible 44 and have dropped just nine points all season. Leeds (108pts) currently hold a five-point gap over second-placed Rotherham (103pts) so it feels appropriate that these two Yorkshire rivals will meet in a promotion showdown at Clifton Lane on Saturday.

“It is a great advert for National League Rugby that it is coming to a bit of a crescendo with four games remaining with the two best teams in the league going toe-to-toe,” Lewis says. “It is very much first-past-the-post and until it is mathematically impossible, we will continue giving it our all.”

“Saturday is going to be a fantastic occasion and probably befitting that whoever wins the game will probably go on to bigger and better things,” adds Seabourne.

But moving on to ‘bigger and better things’ wasn’t something Leeds Tykes were going to define their season by back in September.

Two relegations in three years saw the side fall into National Two North, with Seabourne tasked with turning around the fortunes of the once Premiership club.

After taking over the reins as Director of Rugby in the summer, Seabourne’s first game in charge saw the Tykes edge past Sheffield 40-35 in a see-saw contest. He knew his team were a work in progress.

“The goal at the start of the season was to basically stabilise the club and be safe,” Seabourne, who has been a part of the Tykes fabric for the last few years, admits. “We wanted to stop the downward spiral of dropping out of the Championship and then dropping out of National One. 

“Mathematically, we achieved that the game after Christmas where we beat Huddersfield. The bottom two then couldn’t catch us.

“That was the first goal and then we have just worked on a three or a four-week basis of putting plans together for that next block and building the team up, preparing the team properly for each game and respecting the opposition.”

You wouldn’t think the aspirations of the Tykes would have been to avoid relegation when you look at their current statistics. 

As per the England Rugby website, 22 successive wins is the longest, current unbeaten streak in English club rugby and Leeds have also scored the fourth-highest number of tries (146) in the country.

In addition, they have unsurprisingly scored the highest number of points in National League Rugby (968) this term.

Without a doubt, Leeds have suffered some extremely tough times in the not-too-distant past but Seabourne does acknowledge that the stunning campaign his side are having has brought a sense of enjoyment back to the club.

“I can’t comment on what happened in the past but obviously I had seen what had happened in the last couple of years,” Seabourne says. “It was a case of stabilising but we are getting behind the brand again.

“We have been essentially Leeds Tykes for 30 years and we have been pretty successful and we want to get back to that. We have created a sense of identity, a sense of belonging with the players, with the staff, within the community as well.

“People in Leeds are getting behind the brand again. The City of Leeds is renowned for good sporting clubs and when we’re winning, people will get behind their club. When we’re losing, they are not so quick to jump on board! It is hard to keep it going but we have managed to put smiles on people’s faces.”

The rediscovery of their identity is perhaps best reflected by the fact most of Seabourne’s players now live within a five-mile radius of the club but also by the appointments of Mike Aspinall and Pete Lucock to the coaching staff last summer.

The pair both represented Leeds during their playing careers so understood the values and ethos of the club. Along with Seabourne – as well as James Phillips – they are the brains trust behind the Tykes’ staggering form.

So aside from Rotherham, how have the table-toppers stayed streets ahead of everyone else?

“It is actually pretty obvious when you look at our team selections,” Seabourne explains. “Apart from a couple, there are not many players who have played three games on the bounce. 

“We’ve been lucky we have kept just about everybody fit and healthy. We’ve managed the players, we’ve managed the workload. 

“That has then allowed us to plan and pick teams behind the scenes for a block of three games, a block of four games. Probably for the Rotherham game, we knew what we were aiming for – in terms of the team – two weeks ago. 

“Because of the squad depth we’ve been able to create, we have 35 to 38 players and with us only being a one-team club at the moment – hopefully that will change in the next 12-18 months – we have been able to be flexible and keep everyone fit, fresh and happy.

“The players have prided themselves on winning 22 out of 22 so it is down to the players, their attitude, the coaches, the staff, our attitude collectively.”

Not since Caldy’s charge towards the National Two North title in 2019/20 have we seen a team put together a run like Leeds. In that particular year, the Wirral side had recorded 25 wins from 25 games before the campaign was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic but the Tykes could surpass that statistic.

In any other season, the title would already be in the Leeds trophy cabinet with an immediate return to National One confirmed.

However, with the benefit of hindsight since their meeting back in November, some might say Rotherham were the most likely candidate to keep the pressure on Leeds but at the time, the Titans were actually in transition. 

Six weeks before that clash with Leeds, Rotherham, under Gary Pearce, were second in the standings and two points behind the Tykes after recording a seventh straight win.

Pearce then exited the club by mutual constant, but Rotherham acted quickly to secure the services of Lewis whilst also appointing former Jersey Reds Director of Rugby Harvey Biljon in a consultancy role. 

“Obviously through unexpected circumstances, Harvey and I were brought into the club in October and usually, you come into these things with a team that is underperforming but that was very much not the case,” says former Huddersfield boss Lewis.

“We came in and we were seven from seven but I think the potential within the group was very evident. We knew we could make some improvements to the squad in terms of performance levels and we have grown as a squad throughout the season.

“We didn’t want to change too much too soon. There is an enormous amount of talent and experience within so it was about sharpening our tools and making sure we had a clear identity of how we wanted to play, and I think we have got a real clear picture of what we are about.”

Despite the coaching changes, Lewis and Biljon have guided the Titans to 14 wins from a possible 15 with their only “blip” coming against you know who.

But there have been moments where Rotherham’s season could have gone in the wrong direction, not least in Lewis’ first home match at the helm. 

The Titans had to overturn an 11-point half-time deficit against Otley to ensure their new era began with a victory. In truth, it is that sort of character which has allowed Lewis’ side to set up Saturday’s promotion clash with Leeds.

“The lads have had a fantastic attitude,” Lewis adds. “We’ve come together that bit tighter through the season because we haven’t had it all our own way by any stretch.

“We’ve had to dig deep. The performance needs to come first and the rest will follow, however subconsciously, everyone has recognised that in order to maintain the pressure on Leeds, we’ve needed to get five points every week.

“Often teams have come out firing against us, particularly in the opening 20 minutes and at times, we’ve had to weather that storm to really impose ourselves in the second half. I think a case in point was last Saturday’s victory against Hull where they made life very difficult for us but we came through.

“There have been one or two tense finishes, a few nails bitten but full credit to the boys for getting five points every week. It is some achievement.”

Similarly to Leeds, Rotherham have also suffered a fall from grace in recent times. The former Premiership side were stalwarts of the Championship up until 2018 when they were relegated to the third tier.

And two years later, they were heading to National Two North with this term being their third successive campaign at level four.

In the past two seasons, Rotherham might have been insistent on steadying the ship rather than targeting promotion, but 11 straight wins since their sole loss to Leeds means they have manoeuvred themselves into a position where they could make a return to National One.

“I saw from the outside the intent by Rotherham Titans to recruit a very strong playing squad and I think that has probably been reflected in the ambition of the club,” Lewis continues.

“The club, I think, rightly deserves to be in the higher echelons of certainly National League Rugby and has that aim and ambition. Hopefully it can happen this year. We are giving it our best shot.”

 Of course, a lot will depend on the outcome at Clifton Lane on Saturday. A Leeds triumph would leave them on the cusp of glory while a 15th consecutive home win for Rotherham – a run which dates back to February 2023 – would leave the promotion battle unbelievably posied going into April.

Whatever the result, you can justifiably regard this as one of the best National League Rugby title races – in terms of performance levels and consistency – in the last decade. Think Manchester City and Liverpool in football and it isn’t an outlandish comparison.

To set the bar as high as Leeds Tykes and Rotherham have done has been nothing short of sensational and all of their efforts could now boil down to this weekend as these famous clubs prepare to lock horns for their biggest game in recent times.

“It has been a fantastic achievement for the players, the staff and the management. It has been an unbelievable season,” says Seabourne. “Hopefully now we can do something special.

“It [winning] would be a big step but we are not taking anything for granted. Rotherham are a very good side and we are concentrating on preparing properly for the game, being as professional as we can be and if we get that right, hopefully the players can perform. Forget about what is over the horizon. We haven’t spoken about anything other than the game coming up each week and the next task in hand, and the next task in hand is Rotherham.”

“We find ourselves in a position to play certainly the biggest game in northern rugby this week if not the National Leagues so everyone is excited by the opportunity and we are really looking forward to a big occasion for both Leeds Tykes and Rotherham Titans,” Lewis concludes.

“If we can get the victory on Saturday, it just makes it that little bit more tense going into the last three games. Fingers crossed we can put in a huge performance in front of our home crowd.”

Round 23 Fixtures

National One: Birmingham Moseley (4th) v Plymouth Albion (5th), Bishop’s Stortford (12th) v Leicester Lions (11th), Rams (2nd) v Blackheath (8th), Richmond (7th) v Chinnor (1st), Rosslyn Park (3rd) v Sale FC (9th), Sedgley Park (10th) v Cinderford (13th), Taunton Titans (14th) v Darlington Mowden Park (6th).

National Two North: Billingham (12th) v Huddersfield (14th), Fylde (5th) v Hull Ionians (13th), Lymm (11th) v Sheffield Tigers (7th), Rotherham (2nd) v Leeds Tykes (1st), Sheffield (3rd) v Otley (9th), Tynedale (6th) v Hull (8th), Wharfedale (4th) v Preston Grasshoppers (10th).

National Two East: Bury St Edmunds (6th) v Westcombe Park (8th), Esher (1st) v Wimbledon (13th), Guernsey (11th) v North Walsham (14th), Henley (5th) v Barnes (2nd), Old Albanian (10th) v Canterbury (7th), Sevenoaks (9th) v Dorking (3rd), Tonbridge Juddians (4th) v Worthing (12th).

National Two West: Camborne (7th) v Loughborough Students (9th), Chester (10th) v Luctonians (2nd), Clifton (4th) v Bournville (12th), Dings Crusaders (1st) v Exeter University (3rd), Hinckley (5th) v Dudley Kingswinford (13th), Hornets (12th) v Old Redcliffians (6th), Newport (14th) v Redruth (8th). 

Make sure you follow National League Rugby on social media across the course of the season!

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn | YouTube | TikTok | Threads