The top two in the third tier meet in the North-West as Rams RFC and Sale FC put their hopes of reaching the Championship on the line while the fuse on the relegation battle in National Two East is ready to be lit. (Photo Credit: Steve Karpa)
The first sightings of spring are here. The nights are getting lighter, the temperatures are getting warmer (in some parts of the country) and the National One title race is reaching another thrilling climax.
And for the second year running, Sale FC (2nd) are at the sharp end of it.
This time 12 months ago, they were going stride for stride, punch for punch with Caldy before the two North-West clubs met for effectively a ‘winners takes all’ clash at Paton Field. That day, the Wirral outfit prevailed so it once again feels like another season-defining weekend for Jonathan Keep’s men.
They welcome table-toppers Rams RFC to the CorpAcq Stadium knowing they realistically have to beat their title rivals to keep their hopes of reaching the Championship alive.
Sale enter Round 24 six points behind the league leaders and on a six-match winning run, while Rams hit back in style last time out. Seb Reynolds’ side stumbled away at Plymouth Albion on March 11th but reacted emphatically against Taunton Titans at Old Bath Road as they powered to a 59-21 triumph.
Eight years ago, Rams had just secured promotion to the fourth tier but a victory at Sale on Saturday would be an almighty step towards creating another remarkable chapter in the club’s recent rise.
An arguably season-defining fixture in #Nat1
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Sale have won the last three meetings between the teams, with the previous two fixtures decided late on by James Robins and Oli Longmore. Drama seems to be guaranteed but with just three games left to play, the stakes could hardly be higher.
Last Saturday, Cambridge boss Richie Williams described Sale FC v Rams as a ‘mouth-watering’ prospect and while it should be a superb advert for National League Rugby, the Blood and Sand’s Director of Rugby knows his side have to concentrate on their own job.
With the spotlight on the top two this weekend, there is a third horse in this title race. Cambridge’s gritty victory over Chinnor in Round 23 has kept them in the hunt and they are 10 points behind Rams with a game in hand. They may well be praying for a Sale win, but the men from Granchester Road will be fully focused on securing a maximum against Leeds Tykes.
On paper, a bonus-point victory for Cambridge seems like the most logical outcome but Jon Callard’s side are fighting for their lives. The Tykes are teetering on the edge of relegation and know a seventh successive defeat would seal their fate as they currently sit 17 points from safety.
The hosts have won 18 of their 22 games this term but they did draw 17-17 with Leeds back in December so that might be a source of inspiration for the Yorkshire outfit. Not only could a Tykes win keep them afloat for another week, but it could also end Cambridge’s title dreams.
While trapdoor might close on Leeds Tykes this weekend, both Taunton Titans and Esher are still battling to avoid the drop. The EEEs jumped out of the bottom three at the expense of Taunton last week so Peter Winterbottom’s side will want to build on that when they host Bishop’s Stortford (5th) on Saturday while Tony Yapp’s Titans – who are now three points from safety – entertain Rosslyn Park (4th).
Elsewhere, there is a scenario where the trio of Birmingham Moseley, Chinnor and Darlington Mowden Park confirm their spots in National One for next season. Moseley and DMP are on the road as they visit Plymouth Albion and Cinderford respectively while Chinnor are back at home as they welcome Hull.
National Two North
Unlike National One, the question in National Two North is less complicated.
Sedgley Park or Fylde?
April will see one of these clubs earn promotion to the third tier and as it stands, Sedge are very much in the driving seat to achieve that feat.
They are currently 12 points clear of Fylde and travel to Sheffield (11th) this weekend while two miles up the road, their title rivals face Sheffield Tigers.
After a two-week break due to a postponement and a reserve weekend, Chris Briers and Alex Loney’s side were back with a bang in Round 23 to keep the pressure on Sedge. They also still have a game in hand to come against Huddersfield, but with that fixture scheduled for after the ‘official’ final weekend of the season, it might count for nothing if the Lancashire club take their eye off the ball.
A trip to Dore Moor won’t be straightforward, either. The Yorkshire outfit have won their last three outings – including a victory over Otley (4th). They will be in a buoyant mood on Saturday but Fylde are more than capable of heading back home with the points.
After the relegation battle was decided last weekend, only pride and positions are up for grabs across the rest of the league.
Hull Ionians will be targeting the bronze medal spot and they visit Harrogate in Round 24 while Otley will also fancy a top-three finish as they host Wharfedale at Cross Green.
We will also see fifth vs sixth on Saturday as Chester entertain Rotherham Titans while Tynedale will be aiming for a third straight win when they take on Huddersfield and Preston Grasshoppers welcome Blaydon to Lightfoot Green as they go in search of a fourth consecutive home victory.
National Two East
The intensity of the relegation battle in National Two East isn’t easing one bit and the final month of the season is beautifully poised. Perhaps ‘beautifully posied’ won’t be a phrase North Walsham, Rochford Hundred, Sevenoaks and even Canterbury will be coining anytime soon given where they are in the standings, but as a spectacle, it should be fascinating to see how the last three games play out.
The reason for this is because North Walsham – who currently sit in the final relegation spot and two points from safety – have to play all three of the sides I have just listed, starting with a trip to Sevenoaks in Round 24.
In March, The Vikings played four of the current top five and managed to garner three points but they showed on multiple occasions that that total could have been more. They held leads against newly crowned champions Blackheath, Dorking and Henley Hawks, so finishing on the wrong end of those scorelines might be seen as a negative for James Knight’s side but there are plenty of points to take into a season-defining month.
— North Walsham RFC (@NorthWalshamRFC) March 26, 2023
As for Sevenoaks, they come into this crunch match five points clear of the drop zone and have won just one of their last seven games. Adam Bowman’s side have failed to build on their only success in that period against Guernsey Raiders but you get the feeling a victory this weekend on their own patch would leave them within touching distance of safety. The Kent outfit did lose 42-27 in the reverse fixture back in December but just their sixth win of the campaign could be the most precious of them all.
While North Walsham lock horns with Sevenoaks, Rochford Hundred – who sit two points clear of the drop – host Henley (5th) while Canterbury – who are eight points from danger – can potentially secure their safety this weekend when they welcome Guernsey to The Marine Travel Ground.
Elsewhere, Blackheath’s first fixture as champions sees them travel across the capital to face second-placed Barnes while Worthing Raiders (3rd) take on Westcliff, Dorking (4th) entertain Tonbridge Juddians and Bury St Edmunds come up against Old Albanian.
National Two West
The fight for survival in National Two West will be examined further in Round 24 and the focus will be on Barnstaple trying to pull off an escape. The Chiefs won’t want to pack their bags just yet so they will be keen to pass their latest test on Saturday against Loughborough Students – who they beat just before Christmas.
Barum are currently nine points from safety but with Bournville’s fixture away at Exeter University postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, the Devonshire outfit can gain some ground on their relegation rivals if they are able to do the double over Loughborough.
Hornets would also like to enrol in another campaign of National League Rugby and if they match or better Barnstaple’s result when they host Old Redcliffians, then their place will be secured.
With Leicester Lions achieving an A* this term by lifting the title last week, their first game as champions sees them take on Stourbridge at Westleigh Park while both Clifton and Dings Crusaders will be looking to gain full marks in their pursuit of second spot.
The Lavender and Blacks entertain Redruth in their last dance at Station Road this season while Dings go to Hinckley. Elsewhere, top four hopefuls Luctonians will be aiming to make the grade against Newport (Salop).