Levels three and four were left perfectly poised heading into the Christmas break and a full complement of fixtures returns this weekend. (Photo Credit: Ian Clark)

National One

One of the messages you sometimes hear in sport is ‘not reading too much into results’ but if your National One league leaders Chinnor, that might have been a difficult task over the Christmas break.

Their derby day, top-of-the-table meeting with Rams in Round 14 was the fixture so many had been waiting for and it went the way of Nick Easter’s troops. Twelve months ago, the Black and Whites were sitting just one point above the relegation places, but Chinnor now begin 2024 three points clear at the summit.

In a league of fine margins, that 21-7 victory over Rams may prove to be key come the end of April but there will undoubtedly be more twists and turns before the curtain comes down on another absorbing National One campaign.

You can bet your bottom dollar that the men from Kingsey Road won’t be thinking about silverware in the spring sunshine just yet, especially with a visit to Sale FC to start the New Year.

‘The Dogs’ had a surprising first half of the season, but it was surprising for all the wrong reasons. Just one win from their first eight games is why they are currently in the relegation places but four victories from their last six matches is certainly a sign of a Sale resurgence.

As things stand, they are two points from safety and they welcome the table toppers to the North-West having won their last three home fixtures, a run which also includes a victory over second-placed Rams RFC. Sale were dispatched 36-0 by Chinnor back in Round Three and if the visitors were to produce a repeat performance, then ‘reading into results’ might become something none of us will be able to avoid.

Rams will be hoping their title rivals suffer the same, unwanted fate as they did at Heywood Road back in November as Seb Reynolds’ side look to kickstart 2024 by returning to winning ways.

A misfiring display against Chinnor would have been a frustrating way to enter their three-week break so you would expect Rams to come flying out of the blocks when they entertain Sedgley Park (4th) at Old Bath Road on Saturday.

Thrid-placed Plymouth Albion host Bishop’s Stortford in Round 15 while fifth travel to sixth with Rosslyn Park making the trip to Birmingham Moseley.

The bottom half of National One started to become increasingly tight towards the end of 2023 so Blackheath’s win in their rearranged game away at Sedgley Park last week would have been a massive boost to James Shanahan’s side. ‘

‘Club’ will now be looking to build on that when they face bottom-of-the-table Leicester Lions on Saturday, with Gareth Collins’ charges six points from safety.

The Lions bolstered their survival bid just before Christmas thanks to a valuable 25-20 win over Cinderford, who sit just one place and two points above the dreaded dotted line. Paul Morris’ side take on Darlington Mowden Park this weekend while Taunton – who currently occupy one of the spots in the relegation zone – go to Richmond.

National Two North

The form of title challengers Leeds Tykes and Rotherham Titans certainly left a lasting impression on 2023 and both clubs kicked off the New Year in the same, determined fashion.

Last Saturday, table-toppers Leeds found themselves 12-0 down against an in-form Tynedale before a hat-trick from the excellent Charlie Venables helped them surge to a 14th successive win.

Pete Seabourne’s side have dropped just one point all term and they will be looking to extend their remarkable run when they host a struggling Hull Ionians outfit in Round 15. The I’s make the journey from East Yorkshire currently sitting in the bottom two following seven defeats on the spin so everything does point towards the league leaders chalking up another victory.

Rotherham will be hoping they aren’t successful as the Titans continue to keep the Tykes honest, despite the sensational run Leeds have stitched together. Before Christmas, Gareth Lewis’ men showed a lot of character against Preston Grasshoppers and Wharfedale to collect bonus-point victories and yet again, they produced a storming second-half display against Sheffield Tigers last week to secure another maximum.

You get the feeling that anything less than five points would be a major blow to any promotion hopes Rotherham might be harbouring and their first assignment of 2024 is away to Lymm. Adam Fletcher and Andy Davies’ side went unbeaten in December and they will be hoping that kind of form can continue on Saturday as they look to climb the standings.

Down at the wrong end of the table, Huddersfield may be stirring after halting a run of 10 successive defeats last weekend. Neil Ryan’s men picked up their first victory since Round Two against Billingham to leave themselves 10 points from safety ahead of a visit to Hull on Saturday.

The aforementioned Billingham host an in-form Fylde (4th) this weekend while Sheffield (3rd) will be aiming to stretch their unbeaten run to eight games when they travel to Preston Grasshoppers. Elsewhere, Sheffield Tigers entertain Otley.

Please note: Following the tragic loss of Tynedale’s Rory Cramb on Christmas Eve, the club’s fixture with Wharfedale on Saturday (i.e. the day after Rory’s funeral) has been postponed as a mark of respect. The game has been rearranged for Saturday 2nd March. Our deepest sympathies and condolences continue to be with Rory’s family, friends and everyone connected to Tynedale.

National Two East

The tussle for top spot between Esher and Dorking in National Two East meant 2023 concluded with a strong narrative, and the pair are likely to be jostling for pole position for much of the second half of the season.

But what about those in the chasing pack? Well, Bury St Edmunds and Henley Hawks will both know there is work to do – and they have to hope Esher and Dorking hit some bumps in the road – if they are muscle their way into any promotion chatter.

However, the form of Bury in particular suggests they have all the tools in their toolbox to force their way into a title race. Jacob Ford’s men are unbeaten in nine matches and moved into third place last week following a five-try victory over Canterbury. The Wolfpack haven’t lost since the end of September and back on their home patch again this week, the Suffolk outfit will be hoping their brilliant sequence of results can hit double figures.

In their way will be fourth-placed Henley. The Hawks tucked into their Christmas turkey on the back of a defeat against Old Albanian (which ended their five-game unbeaten streak) but Luke Allen’s troops tasted that winning feeling again at the first time of asking after last week’s triumph over Westcombe Park.

While Bury sit seven points behind leaders Esher and Henley nine, whoever comes out on top at the GK IPA Haberden this weekend will feel they can still have a tilt at the title.

Bury and Henley were able to close the gap to the top two by fulfilling and winning their games hand last weekend so the division’s leading duo of Esher and Dorking will want to respond with victories in Round 15. Esher – who have won their last eight games – go to Canterbury (7th) while Dorking host bottom-of-the-table North Walsham.

Elsewhere, fifth-placed Barnes will be looking to recapture some form when they take on a Worthing side who are currently three points above the drop zone.

Wimbledon, who are in the relegation places as things stand, face Westcombe Park this weekend while Guernsey Raiders entertain Tonbridge Juddians and Sevenoaks – fresh from their win over Barnes last Saturday – travel to Old Albanian.

National Two West

In the second half of last season, the home form of Newport (Salop) was a factor in Bob Adams’ side navigating themselves away from the relegation zone. Four straight wins at Forton Road between February and March did play their part in them booking their place in National Two West for 2023/24 and something similar may well be needed if Newport are to survive the drop this time around.

As things stand, the Shropshire outfit are currently bottom of the division and eight points from safety but they have the chance to give themselves a shot in the arm when they host Hornets on Saturday.

The visitors sit directly above the bottom two – which also includes Dudley Kingswinford who visit Loughborough Students this weekend – but since beating Newport in Round Three, Jon Richardson’s side have only taken a seat in the winners’ lounge on one occasion. They come into Round 15 on the back of four straight defeats but a first away victory for 11 months would certainly ease any relegation fears.

Bournville will also be looking to climb away from the trapdoor and they return to action by taking on Old Redcliffians at Avery Fields. Old Reds begin 2024 in decent nick after collecting five wins from their last six games, a run which includes beating table-toppers Luctonians just before Christmas.

Speaking of the league leaders – who have lost their last two matches – they resume their title bid five points clear at the summit and with a home clash against Redruth (8th) while second-placed Dings Crusaders will be aiming to extend their fabulous unbeaten run to 10 games when they host Chester.

Elsewhere in an intriguing top six, Camborne (3rd) face Clifton (6th) and Hinckley (4th) – undefeated in seven – travel to Exeter University (5th).

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