Richie Williams and Cambridge have displayed immense resolve to take this sensational National One title race to the wire and now the Blood and Sand can create history on Saturday. (Photo Credit: Chris Fell)
The story of Cambridge’s season will stretch from the first whistle right till the very last and as they sit on the brink of promotion to the Championship, their journey has arguably been five years in the making.
After winning the old National Two South title in 2016, former Director of Rugby Ross Stewart stabilised the Blood and Sand in the third tier before he leaving his role two years later.
Current boss Richie Williams was brought in, having coached abroad in Belgium as well as spending five years with the England Counties set-up, and after surviving relegation on the final day of the 2018-19 campaign, he has now guided Cambridge to within touching distance of the National One title.
Saturday afternoon’s game against Birmingham Moseley at Grantchester Road could be the setting for the most significant day in the club’s history, and this opportunity has been built on steady progression.
But to find themselves in this position after a truly remarkable title race has required bucketloads of spirit and determination throughout a gruelling eight-month campaign.
There really is only one place to be this weekend 🙌
Can @MoseleyRugbyFC spoil the party?
— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) April 28, 2023
Cambridge enter this weekend in third place on 109 points and must clinch a bonus-point victory to be crowned champions. If they achieve this, it would see them finish above Sale FC and Rams, who themselves completed their respective campaigns with 113 and 114 points.
Considering the number of games for each team in National One was reduced from 30 to 26 this year – due to the restructuring of the leagues at the start of the season – those aforementioned points tallies tell you all you need to know about the quality of rugby which has been produced by Cambridge and their fellow promotion rivals.
After finishing last year in fourth and watching on as Caldy and Sale FC took the 2021-22 title race to the wire, Williams and Cambridge’s main objective for this term has remained the same each week: “Get a bonus point victory”.
That could be interpreted as stating the obvious but when you’re battling it out with Rams and Sale FC, that mindset and message is more than just empty words.
At the end of January, Cambridge saw a 27-12 lead slip away from them at home against Rams – leaving Williams’ side fourth in the table – but since then, nine straight victories have taken them to the edge of glory.
For the destination of the title to come down to this weekend, for the last three months, Cambridge have treated each game as a “cup final” and a trio of successive maximums in April – along with Rams dropping points – has presented them with this opportunity.
But while collecting wins is more often than not the main currency of success in sport, it is a 17-17 draw away at relegated Leeds Tykes back in December that could turn out to be one of the most important results of all.
If Cambridge do register a bonus-point victory this coming Saturday, they will finish on the same number of points and wins as Rams meaning the title will be decided by which team has drawn the higher number of matches. With Rams not involved in a stalemate this term, it means Cambridge’s solitary draw would see them snatch top spot by the finest of margins.
Of course, results have led Cambridge to this point, but Williams has also nurtured a clinical and efficient outfit. Speaking to BBC Radio Cambridge’s Steve Jackson following their crucial 31-10 victory over Plymouth Albion last week, the Blood and Sand boss said his side had been “ticking along quite nicely.”
That might be a slight understatement.
The Grantchester Road outfit have scored the most points (943) in National One this season (including 28 tries in their last three games) and other than National Two East champions Blackheath, it is the highest total across all four divisions in National League Rugby.
Those affiliated with Cambridge will be quick to mention an array of players who have driven standards this season, but having the top two try-scorers in the third tier – as well as the third-highest overall points scorer in the league – is a precious commodity when challenging for silverware.
Hooker Ben Brownlie has been prolific and with the help of a well-oiled driving maul, he currently sits on 27 tries while explosive winger Kwaku Asiedu tops the charts with 30. Fly-half Steff James has 216 individual points to his name.
Williams, unsurprisingly, has paid tribute to his full squad ahead of Saturday and the graft they have put in in both attack and defence over the last 34 weeks – along with the mental strength they have shown – must be applauded.
And it is that collective effort and vision which Williams was most impressed by when he first walked through the doors of Grantchester Road five years ago: “It is a welcoming club and a very well-run club off the field. The infrastructure they have got in place is really supportive.”
That aligned thinking is evident. After kicking off his tenure with a high-octane 36-36 draw with Sale FC in September 2018, it potentially set the tone for an up-and-down campaign for the Blood and Sand.
Victories against Plymouth and champions Ampthill were notable moments but heading into the final day, one win from six games left their National One status in the balance.
It's going to be a big day at Volac Park tomorrow, when a #bp win over @MoseleyRugbyFC could see us win the league.
🏉 Here's the team Richie has selected
🙏 With thanks to our player sponsors
👏 Congratulations to Billie on reaching 50 caps
You don't want to miss it
🕒 3pm KO pic.twitter.com/Spcd3bNSKG
— Cambridge Rugby 🏉 (@camrufc) April 28, 2023
However, almost exactly four years ago to the day, a victory over Sale – combined with rivals Caldy losing to Birmingham Moseley – kept them in the division and since then, Williams and the club have opted to build rather than settle.
A 10th-placed finish in the curtailed 2019-20 campaign was followed by an eye-catching fourth place last term and full kudos must go to Cambridge for raising their levels again in arguably the most competitive National One campaign in recent memory.
As Cambridge President JJ Jeffery tweeted this week, it is “ironic” that Moseley kept the Blood and Sand in the league back in 2019 and now all that stands between them and the Championship is the Midlands club – who interestingly did beat the promotion hopefuls back in November.
Even before he got his feet under the table at Cambridge, Williams met the club’s committee and “got the sense” they were starting to build something: “It is a really exciting project.”
And the completion date may well turn out to be Saturday, April 29th 2023.