As the National League season draws to a conclusion, we have taken a look at some of the teams who will be joining National Two for the 2019/20 campaign.(Photo Credit: Maria & Bill Rhoades)
One of the most talked about topics across English rugby this season has been ring-fencing the Premiership, but what cannot be ignored is the drama and emotion that comes with promotion races and relegation fights at this time of the year.
Last Friday’s clash between Newcastle Falcons and Leicester Tigers was arguably one of the games of the season as both sides aim to avoid the trapdoor to the Championship.
After the titanic tussle at Kingston Park, England winger and former Redruth man Jack Nowell tweeted “That’s exactly why you should never get rid of relegation” and even in the National Leagues, this time of the season seems to be unrivalled as teams up and down the country battle for promotion and survival.
There is still one final round to come in the National Leagues on April 27th, but we already know four of the teams who will be joining National Two next term as the domestic campaigns in North Premier, Midlands Premier, London & SE Premier and South West Premier came to a conclusion last weekend…
Hull won the North Premier title and promotion to National Two for the first time in four years. They picked up 119 points from their 26 games and in the words of Director of Rugby Gary Pearce, his side won the league ‘at a canter.’
The Yorkshire club have re-built since their last venture into National Two. After finishing eighth on their return to North Premier, Hull have managed to slowly work their way up the division and ended last season in second spot.
The men from the Ferens Ground were beaten by Peterborough Lions in the play-off almost 12 months ago, but Hull have taken the next step and did so in style.
Hull were crowned champions on March 16th and went on a 21-match winning run during the course of the season. In their final game of the campaign, they hammered Rossendale 62-0 and broke the 1,000-point barrier for the season to the delight of Pearce.
He told ncarugby.com: “With winning the league with a few weeks in hand, we did try to set ourselves some goals. The 1,000-point mark was there so we tried to use that as a motivational thing.
“It is nice to finish well because it gives you something to kick on with in the summer because we feel like we’re a little bit ahead of the game.”
— Hull RUFC (@hullrugbyunion) April 14, 2019
With Hull RUFC pretty much situated in the city centre, the club are competing alongside the two rugby league heavyweights of Hull FC and Hull KR, as well as National One bound Hull Ionians, for players and resources.
Pearce admitted it has been a tough job since 2015, but he believes the club are in a positive position to perform in the next tier.
He added: “Going back to when we got relegated, it was a big building process for the club. We had to start from rock bottom because we lost a lot of players. We have taken a bit of a different route and tried to build our own players and we have not rushed the process.”
Hull finished seven points adrift of safety last time they were in National Two and Pearce is fully aware of how difficult next season might be, but he and his side are looking forward to the challenge.
“We are not under any illusions,” Pearce said. “We know it is going to be really tough and the hard work begins now. Playing four extra games is a big challenge, but it is a good thing for us.
“We think we’re OK and not a bad side! We’ve won North Premier more convincingly then anybody else has when they have gone up over the last five or six years. We’d like to think we can shock a few sides next season and I do think we are equipped for it, but it is still a bit of the unknown!
“Survival is something we have to look at in our first year, but finishing as high as we possibly can is also an aim.”
Scunthorpe will make a return to National Two next season after being crowned champions of Midlands Premier. Tim Robinson’s side were in the fourth tier during the 2016-17 campaign, but suffered an immediate relegation, however, the Lincolnshire side are back at this level once again.
Between December 1st and the end of this term, Scunthorpe lost just twice in 15 matches and despite falling to successive against Sandbach and Syston in March, they bounced back to clinch the league title on the final day of the season.
The Greens knew a victory over Broadstreet would be enough to see them over the line regardless of how second-placed Luctonians performed against Lichfield. Despite a nervy encounter in the Midlands, a 17-16 win for Scunthorpe sealed their place in National Two.
“It was always going to be pretty tense!” said head coach Robinson. “It is about controlling that pressure and emotion as much as you can.
“I think the best thing about the day was that we got a very good start, but credit to Broadstreet, I thought they played very well in the second half and they put the pressure on us. The last 15/20 minutes when we went a man down, I thought we played some great stuff. We managed the game really well, put pressure on them and saw the game out.
“I think we have gone up because we have been the most consistent side. We have won home and away against the top four or five teams, barring losing away at Luctonians, so it is about grinding out results. The consistency from the lads throughout the season has been absolutely spot on and we were deserved winners of the league in the end.”
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There we have it sport fans, it’s been a long hard season and the boys have done themselves, the clubs and the town proud. – – Now the hard work starts for everybody concerned as we prepare for life in national 2 north. – – #rugbyclub #midlandspremier #lincolnshirebusiness #scunthorperufc #rugby #rugbygram #scunthorpe #ncarugby
Scunthorpe finished fourth last term, but a good start to the 2018/19 campaign set the foundations for Robinson’s side to challenge for promotion.
With the National Leagues being their next destination, Scunthorpe will now be looking to stay at this level after relegation in 2017 from National Two North. Their fate was sealed on the final day of the season against Chester, but Robinson admits his side have learnt a lot from past experiences.
He added: “It has been a 12-year ride for me as a player and coach and the first time we got to National Two, we learnt a heck of a lot. We moved up from 26 games to 30 games so you have to manage your squad over that period.
“That helped us learn as a coaching team and the players have certainly learnt a lot as well. Last time, we went up a bit raw and we didn’t really know what to expect. It was a massive learning curve and I think we have taken a lot out of that.”
After winning their first five games of this past season, Robinson is hoping for another positive start as Scunthorpe look to sustain themselves in National Two.
“The key is going to be getting a good start,” he said. “Our main aspect will be to try and survive in the division. We lost out on the final day of the season at Chester last time so we obviously don’t want it to go down to that late in the season!
“The squad that we have got is a young squad and if we can survive that first year, then we can grow our ambitions from there.”
Sutton & Epsom
Sutton and Epson won the London & SE Premier title by beating Bedford Athletic 38-31 on the final day of the season. The Black and Whites required just one point from their final fixture of the campaign and four tries in the opening 40 minutes sealed their promotion to National Two for the first time in the club’s history.
“I think we were slightly disappointed we didn’t do it the week before and I don’t think we handled the pressure particularly well either,” said Sutton and Epsom head coach Mike Schmid.
“We went into last week with the possibility of finishing third, but last Saturday, I was really pleased with the mindset of the boys.
“We knew that Bedford score a lot of points, but also give away a lot of points so we knew we were fully capable of scoring four tries.”
Sutton and Epsom racked up 102 points this term, but they began the season with three defeats from their opening seven matches. However, after losing at home against Tunbridge Wells back in October, Schmid’s side went on a 14-match winning streak that kickstarted their promotion challenge.
“We had a bit of an up and down start mainly because of player availability as you can get at our level! It meant we were disjointed for the first six weeks of the season.
“It took the boys a while to get into the mode where Paul Hodgson (coach) and I wanted to get them to, but I am really pleased to say the attitude and the effort of the players was fantastic all year. They really brought into what we were trying to do.
— S&ERFC (@SuttonEpsomRFC) April 13, 2019
“Whenever you get into a winning run, there is some pressure on it as well but you build confidence in how you play. I think there were a couple of games which we could have and should have lost, but the character of the boys really shone through.”
Over the course of the season, Sutton and Epsom won 12 of their 13 matches on the road and beat their nearest rivals, Westcliff and Wimbledon, both home and away. After finishing 10th for successive years in the fifth tier, National Two now awaits the men from Rugby Lane.
Schmid added: “The honest answer is we didn’t think we would challenge for promotion at the start of the season! I think we knew we could be a good, competitive team in the league. Did we expect to win it? At the beginning, probably not, but the belief sort of grew and came from the players group.
“We were just worrying about what our next game brought and we focused on that to put ourselves in a position to keep winning games.
“For alot of the boys, our current level was the highest level they have played rugby. It will be a great experience playing in National Two for those boys. They are an ambitious group and want to do well, as does the club, but there will be some challenges.
“It is going to be tough and competitive. Of course, we want to stay up but we want to finish as high up the league as we deserve to finish. That might be fourth from bottom or might be mid-table, but we want to solidify ourselves up there and be a tough team to beat.
“We want the boys to continue to have fun and enjoy playing rugby and if we can get to that place, we will be successful wherever we finish.”
Bournemouth ended the South West Premier season with a sparkling performance as the champions hammered Old Patesians 83-0. Will Croker’s side have been in a party mood for a while after securing the title back in March and the Lions concluded the campaign with 25 wins from 26 games.
They also won the league by an unprecedented margin of 27 points and went unbeaten at home which highlights Bournemouth’s wonderful campaign after suffering disappointment in the play-off against Guernsey last season.
Croker said: “We were disappointed not to go up last year when we played Guernsey. We were actually probably prepared to go up as a squad, but we showed this season we were capable to get promoted after that heartache.
“We only lost once all season and that was against Maidenhead just before Christmas. It wasn’t the best result, but it galvanised us. We also had a tricky start to 2019 but we showed great resolve amongst the squad to grind out wins.”
After sealing promotion against Exmouth last month, Croker told the club website about the building process Bournemouth have been through since promotion to the fifth tier in 2013. After ending their first term in South West Premier in ninth place, consecutive fifth-placed finishes were followed by their play-off challenge last term.
Speaking to ncarugby.com, Croker said: “I came into the club the season after they were last relegated from National Two five years ago. It was about stabilising the team and using the players already at the club and making them better.
“We created competition in the squad and since then, it has been about the tagline of ‘One Squad’. We showed that this season as well and this year couldn’t have gone any better!”
The Lions are now preparing for life in National Two and if they can bring their style and panache to this level, they could have a very satisfying campaign in the fourth tier.
Croker added: “We confirmed promotion a few weeks ago, but I didn’t want to limp towards the end of the season. We wanted to explode and send a message, not to the teams in National Two, but to ourselves. We want to tell ourselves we are ready and we kept our foot on the gas to maintain that momentum.
“I do need a rest, but I would love for the new season to start now! I am actually off to Henley Hawks against Bury St Edmunds next weekend! We know it will be a big test for us because we are an amateur side competing against some big teams and it will be daunting, but we are really excited.
“The challenge is there. It is a long season, but we have worked our backsides off to get to this point. We will not shy away from it and we will take it head on.”
There are also two more spaces in the National Leagues available which will be decided by the play-offs. In the North/Midlands tie, Luctonians take on Blaydon as both sides look for an immediate return to National Two North while Westcliff face Barnstaple on April 27th in the London & SE/South West play-off.