This engrossing National One title race has gone the distance but will it be decided this weekend? The fight to avoid relegation from the third tier is equally as dramatic while the battle to evade the drop in National Two East has also gone to the wire (Photo Credit: Paul Clark)
What can we expect then?
This could have been the first question we all asked ourselves at the beginning of the season but 33 weeks later, you can argue we still have absolutely no idea what might be next when it comes to National One.
The title race has gone to the wire and as we enter Round 26, Rams RFC, Sale FC and Cambridge are all in with a shout of gaining promotion to the Championship.
As it stands, Rams are one point clear at the top and Seb Reynolds’ side travel to Esher this weekend. The Berkshire club bounced back from their recent defeat to Sale by securing all five points against Cinderford as the men from Old Bath Road kept their dreams alive.
To be negative for just a second, Rams have lost their last two away fixtures – which has seen their seven-point advantage at the summit dwindle away – and they will also be coming up against an Esher side fighting for their lives.
Following confirmation that the RFU Council have rejected the motion to have no relegation from the Championship this season, it means Peter Winterbottom’s boys would ideally need to match or better what rivals Taunton Titans do against Leeds Tykes in order to stay in National One.
The EEEs are one point clear of the dreaded dotted line but do have the tougher task on paper. Taunton host the already relegated Tykes but the Titans have also collected 24 points from their last eight games and did beat fourth-placed Rosslyn Park in their last home outing.
Whichever way you look at it, it will be a tense afternoon in Surrey and Somerset.
It all comes down to this…or does it?👀
— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) April 21, 2023
Sale (2nd) will be hoping for an almighty favour from Esher this weekend as Jonathan Keep’s charges need their promotion rivals to slip up if they stand any chance of swooping in to claim the National One title. ‘The Dogs’ have done all they can to keep the pressure on the league leaders and a run of eight successive wins highlights this.
All they can do is focus on completing their own job when they host Birmingham Moseley, who secured their safety last week after their win over Taunton Titans. With no relegation fears to worry about, Adam Balding’s side could be seen as ‘just another team’ in this title race narrative but the Midlands club could have a major say in who gets promoted to the Championship.
After they visit the North-West – and if results go a certain way – Mose travel to Cambridge so the next 160 minutes of rugby they are involved in could actually be hugely significant.
But that will only ring true if Cambridge (3rd) get the desired outcome away at fifth-placed Plymouth Albion this weekend. As followers of National League Rugby will know by now, the Blood and Sand are currently in control of their own fate because if they win their last two matches with a bonus point, they will be crowned champions.
Richie Williams’ side have pieced together eight straight victories but the fact Rams have dropped points over the last month has also brought the Granchester Road outfit to the forefront of this title race.
However, on paper, they arguably have the toughest fixture out of the top three. Plymouth have had a really encouraging season considering 12 months ago they were settling for an 11th-place finish but fast-forward, and Albion are now targeting a top-four spot and they have also been very strong at home throughout this term.
The Devonshire outfit have won 10 of their 12 matches at Brickfields but on the two occasions Plymouth did suffer defeats – against Sale FC and Bishop’s Stortford – the visitors did depart the West Country with bonus-point wins.
Anything other than a perfect afternoon for Cambridge could open the door for Rams or Sale to clinch the title this weekend but what is guaranteed is a compelling Saturday of action.
FINAL DAY PERMUTATIONS – TITLE RACE
- Rams must match or better Sale FC’s result + better Cambridge’s result to win the league on Saturday.
- Sale FC must better Rams’ result + better Cambridge’s result to win the league on Saturday.
- Cambridge can only win the league on Saturday if Rams and Sale FC pick up 0 points and they secure a bonus-point win.
- If Cambridge match the results of Rams and Sale FC on Saturday, they will have the chance to win the league next weekend
FINAL DAY PERMUTATIONS – RELEGATION BATTLE
- Taunton must pick up two or more points than Esher to stay up
Elsewhere on the final day, Rosslyn Park will be targeting fourth place but a positive result won’t be easy away at Cinderford (6th), while Bishop’s Stortford go to Hull and Chinnor entertain Darlington Mowden Park.
National Two East
National Two East might have been a brand-new division for this season, but it has delivered drama right up until the final day as North Walsham, Sevenoaks and Rochford Hundred are scrapping it out to stay at level four.
This might sound obvious but if you had to choose, you may go with North Walsham if you were deciding which camp you’d rather be in heading into Saturday. The Norfolk outfit require just a single point from their final outing against Canterbury (10th) to avoid the drop.
Back-to-back victories over their relegation rivals has lifted the Vikings out of the bottom two and to the cusp of safety so with a spring in their step, they will be looking to get over the line in Kent.
An hour or so west of The Marine Travel Ground, Sevenoaks will also be aiming to stay afloat when they host bottom-of-the-table Westcliff.
Adam Bowman has seen his side win just one of their last nine games and coupled with their rivals also collecting points, it means they haven’t been able to pull away from danger and find themselves just one point clear of the dreaded dotted line.
However, on paper, Sevenoaks will be favourites to pick up the bonus-point win which would keep them in this division against a side who haven’t tasted a victory all season, but the term ‘no complacency’ might well have been stressed during training at Knole Paddock this week.
In truth, Sevenoaks just need to match or better what Rochford Hundred do against Tonbridge Juddians (8th). Despite suffering what could be a terminal defeat against North Walsham in Round 25, Danny Cleare’s side once again displayed heart and character to fight their way back into the game which ultimately earnt them two points.
It means Rochford will kick-off on Saturday one point from safety and in simple terms, they must better Sevenoaks’ result to stand any chance of evading the trapdoor.
Something that will encourage the Essex outfit is the fact they beat TJs on the opening day of the season 37-24 at The Slade so a repeat would only boost their chances of survival.
Away from the fight at the bottom, the top four are all in action against one another with champions Blackheath taking on Dorking (3rd) and Barnes (2nd) visiting Worthing Raiders while it is also fifth vs sixth as Henley Hawks face Bury St Edmunds.
Elsewhere on the final day, Old Albanian host Guernsey Raiders.
National Two North and West Preview
With everything already sewn up in National Two North and West, we’ve picked out a couple of interesting narratives ahead of the final day.
In the North, Hull Ionians host Blaydon knowing two or more points at Brantingham Park will see the I’s secure third spot and while the clash between Sheffield and Tynedale could be perceived as a dead rubber, the visitors from the North East will be targeting a top half finish.
Elsewhere, newly crowned champions Sedgley Park will be presented the National Two North trophy at Cross Green when they take on an Otley side who could finish this term in the top four.
Rotherham Titans could leapfrog Otley if can continue their strong finish to the season away at Harrogate while Fylde go to Chester, Wharfedale travel to Preston Grasshoppers and Sheffield Tigers take on Huddersfield.
Really overwhelming week… 🥺💙
Thank you very much 🙏🏻 https://t.co/3lnoTglG5K
— Matthew Riley (@sedgleytruck) April 19, 2023
Over in Nat Two West, there is a battle of Bristol going on for second position. Both Dings Crusaders and Clifton can reflect on extremely strong campaigns but as it stands, it is the Crusaders who can see the silver medal glistening in the April sunshine.
The equation for them this weekend is Dings need to match what Clifton do to secure a top-two finish. Simple, right? Not necessarily because the men from Shaftesbury Park have to go to fourth-placed Luctonians, who are riding a crest of a wave after confirming their highest-ever finish in National League Rugby last weekend.
Ryan Watkins’ troops have won eight of their last nine games – including last Saturday’s win over Clifton – but you can also doff your cap to the recent form of the Crusaders who have stitched together five straight wins.
That aforementioned loss for Clifton against Luctonians meant they slipped out of second spot so the Lavender and Blacks must pick up two or more points than Dings from their visit to Loughborough Students to finish in the top two. Whatever the outcome, it has been another encouraging term for the men from Station Road.
Also across Round 26, champions Leicester Lions will be gunning for a 20th successive victory – the longest winning streak of any side in National League Rugby this season – when they complete their victorious campaign away at Hornets while Hinckley (5th) host Bournville and Redruth go to Stourbridge.
Elsewhere, Exeter University – fresh from their BUCS Super Rugby triumph on Wednesday – conclude their maiden National League Rugby season at home to Barnstaple and Old Redcliffians visit Newport (Salop).