With a three-horse race for promotion to the Championship and a scrap for survival as intense as ever, one of the most exciting leagues in English rugby is gearing up for an absorbing weekend. (Photo Credit: David Howlett)
The trickiest decision of the week…Where on earth do we start our National One preview?
I think we shall begin with the title race. The top three clubs – Rams RFC, Sale FC and Cambridge – are separated by just five points meaning we are set for a thrilling climax.
First up, Rams. The league leaders sit one point clear at the summit and they will be itching to produce an immediate response in Round 25.
After losing to promotion rivals Sale last time out – and picking up zero points in the process – two defeats from their last three matches has ramped up the pressure on Seb Reynolds’ charges.
They have lost on just four occasions this term, one of which was against this Saturday’s opponents Cinderford (6th). Back in December, the Foresters inflicted successive losses on Rams so a repeat performance would seriously dent the title hopes of the Berkshire outfit.
On a positive note for the table-toppers, they have been scintillating at Old Bath Road – winning 12 of their last 13 games – while Cinderford haven’t picked up a victory away from home since October.
Remaining Fixtures: Cinderford (6th) (H), Esher (11th) (A)
Next, Sale FC (2nd). ‘The Dogs’ have certainly not rolled over and when Rams have stumbled, Jonathan Keep’s side have taken full advantage. Seven successive wins means they sit just one point off the top but if they are to clinch the title, Rams and fellow promotion candidates Cambridge need to falter while Sale need to be faultless.
The manner of their victory against Rams in Round 24 would have only increased belief heading into this weekend because a trip to fourth-placed Rosslyn Park provides another significant test they have to pass.
NATIONAL ONE – HOW IT STANDS
A thrilling run-in lies ahead for Rams, Sale and Cambridge! pic.twitter.com/1taL7SToFM
— Rams RFC (@Rams_RFC) April 11, 2023
Kieran Power’s side have lost just twice at home all season but those setbacks did come against both Rams and Cambridge. Added to this, Park will be the first to admit they haven’t been at their sparkling best in recent weeks having won just two of their last five games. It might be a good time for Sale to visit the capital but then again, Park will be eager to finish the campaign strongly.
Remaining Fixtures: Rosslyn Park (4th) (A), Birmingham Moseley (9th) (H)
And finally, we turn to Cambridge. After grinding out a victory against Chinnor in Round 23 – but doing so without a bonus point – the Blood and Sand knew somewhere down the line Rams needed to slip up if their hopes of promotion were to really ignite.
The fact the league leaders failed to gain anything from their trip to Sale means that remarkably, Cambridge – who occupy third spot in the table – actually hold the cards in this title race.
As it stands, Richie Williams’ men are five points off the top but while Rams and Sale have two matches left to play, Cambridge have three.
It means if all three promotion challengers pick up maximum points from their remaining fixtures, it would be Cambridge who would win the league. They would have the same number of points and the same number of wins as Rams so the destination of the title would be decided by which club has the highest number of draws – which currently is the Granchester Road outfit.
Cambridge are treating each week as a ‘cup final’ and first up is a trip to already relegated Hull. The side bottom of National One haven’t won a game all season but that doesn’t tell the full story.
Mike Umaga’s men have been close to breaking their duck and gave both Rams and Sale a run for their money when they visited Chanterlands Avenue earlier this year. The full five points aren’t a foregone conclusion for Cambridge even though they will be heading to Yorkshire with seven straight wins to their name.
Remaining Fixtures: Hull (14th) (A), Plymouth Albion (5th) (A), Birmingham Moseley (9th) (H)
Fight for survival
With both Hull and Leeds Tykes having already had their relegation confirmed, it means – as things stand – just one spot remains below the dreaded dotted line.
There is a very small possibility that in the event of no relegation from the Championship, only two teams will go down from National One – a decision that is pending an RFU Council Meeting next week – but right now, Taunton Titans (12th) are the occupants of that unwanted final position.
They are currently two points from safety but you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about Tony Yapp’s side just because they are in the bottom three.
Taunton had garnered just 28 points from 17 matches (an average of 1.64pts per game) but since then, 22 points from their last seven fixtures (an average of 3.14pts per game) represents an excellent return that has kept them in touch with the teams above them.
One of those sides is Birmingham Moseley (9th) who they take on in Round 25. The Midlands club are seven points clear of the drop but they do have a game in hand on those around them.
However, that fixture is against Cambridge on April 29th and with a trip to title-chasing Sale FC also to come next Saturday, Adam Balding’s side will be determined to confirm their spot in National One this weekend.
What has held Moseley back this term has been their inability to get over the line. On occasions, they have been involved in tight games and have frustratingly fallen short but avoid defeat at Billesley Common against Taunton, and they will be safe.
Taunton – Remaining Fixtures: Birmingham Moseley (9th) (A), Leeds Tykes (13th) (H)
Birmingham Moseley – Remaining Fixtures: Taunton Titans (12th) (H), Sale FC (2nd) (A), Cambridge (3rd) (A)
As luck would have it, the other two sides who are still battling to stay in National One also meet this weekend when Esher (11th) head up to the North East to face Darlington Mowden Park (10th).
🏉 Match Preview – Esher 🏉
We welcome @esherrugby to the Arena on Saturday in our final home game of the season.
— Darlington Mowden Park (@MowdenPark) April 12, 2023
The EEEs are two points clear of the trapdoor and after Taunton picked up a stunning bonus point win over Rosslyn Park last time out, Peter Winterbottom’s side also secured what could prove to be a valuable victory against Bishop’s Stortford.
Back-to-back successes have lifted Esher out of the bottom three and the only way they can confirm their safety this week is by picking up three or more points than Taunton.
As for DMP, they are currently six points above the bottom three. Things were on the up in February as Garry Law’s men stitched together a four-match winning run but a trio of defeats since then has dragged Darlington Mowden Park back into this scrap.
If the North East outfit match what Taunton do against Birmingham Moseley, then DMP would be safe but returning to the winners’ lounge will be their sole focus.
Expect there to be a series of twists and turns over the course of the afternoon.
Esher – Remaining Fixtures: Darlington Mowden Park (10th) (A), Rams (1st) (H)
Darlington Mowden Park – Remaining Fixtures: Esher (11th) (H), Chinnor (8th) (A)
Elsewhere in National One, Plymouth Albion will still have eyes on a top-four finish when they take on Leeds Tykes while Chinnor will be looking to increase their chances of ending this campaign in the top half when they visit Bishop’s Stortford.