There are just three more rounds to go before National League Rugby takes a break for Christmas, but you get the sense that each remaining weekend will have an impact on how clubs feel heading into 2024. (Photo Credit: Phillipa Hilton)

National One

It has been 13 weeks since Sale FC were left shell-shocked by Leicester Lions on the opening day of the season. Last year’s title challengers were on the wrong end of the biggest upset of Round One but what followed may have left fans of the third tier scratching their heads even more.

The North-West outfit picked up just one victory from their first eight games and given Jonathan Keep’s troops lost just three matches in the entirety of 2022/23, you couldn’t blame people if they were surprised by Sale’s start.

However, is the tide beginning to turn? Two wins from their last three – against table-toppers Rams RFC as well as Rosslyn Park – could be the catalyst Sale need heading into what looks like a vital festive period for ‘The Dogs’.

Before Christmas, the division’s bottom club face Bishop’s Stortford (10th) and Darlington Mowden Park (9th), but they start this intriguing run with a trip to Taunton Titans, who sit just two places and two points above Sale in the standings.

If Sale are heading to Somerset with a spring in their step, Taunton will arrive at Veritas Park in a similar frame of mind. Last time out, Tony Yapp’s men claimed their first away win since February as they defeated Darlington Mowden Park so the Titans will be eager to follow that up with a third success of the season.

Like Sale, Taunton have an interesting December as they take on Cinderford next week – who are also in the bottom four – before their Christmas derby day fixture against Plymouth Albion. It feels like a significant segment of the season for both clubs so who can record back-to-back wins on Saturday?

Sandwiched in between Taunton and Sale are Leicester Lions who will no doubt be keeping an eye on this battle between their rivals. The Midlands club face a tricky test in Round 12 against second-placed Chinnor who currently sit just two points off the top.

Chinnor may also be monitoring another fixture other than their own, but their attention could be on the clash between Rams (1st) and Plymouth Albion (3rd). The league leaders have stitched together successive wins to return to the summit while Albion showed immense powers of recovery to see off Birmingham Moseley last week and preserve their unbeaten home record.

Ryan Lamb’s side are on the road this weekend but they did beat Chinnor on their travels in Round Nine, so Rams will be aware of the challenge that awaits them as they begin a run of matches which sees them also face Richmond and the aforementioned Chinnor before Christmas.

Elsewhere, Birmingham Moseley (5th) entertain Richmond while Rosslyn Park take on Cinderford and Darlington Mowden Park go to Bishop’s Stortford. Sedgley Park’s meeting with Blackheath has been postponed due to a frozen pitch.

National Two North

The finishing line is a fair way off so Rotherham Titans (2nd) will know there is still plenty of rugby to be played despite seeing their possible promotion hopes dented last weekend. In a highly-anticipated battle between themselves and league leaders Leeds Tykes, it was the table-toppers who edged to a bonus-point 26-20 victory to extend their gap at the summit to 11 points.

The Tykes also stretched their winning run to 12 matches while at the same time, they ended Rotherham’s unbeaten start but now Gareth Lewis’ side will want to respond to keep this title race alight.

The Titans have an intriguing run between now and Christmas with two fixtures against teams directly below them, but they also have their potentially pivotal game in hand to come away at Preston Grasshoppers next Saturday. After that, they entertain third-placed Wharfedale but they begin with a home clash against Sheffield Tigers (4th).

Rotherham have won their last nine games at Clifton Lane but the visitors will arrive in a confident mood. The Tigers have picked four victories from their last five matches so momentum is very much behind Jack Howieson’s boys and in fact, they were one of the sides to beat the Titans in their own backyard last season.

However, if Rotherham were able to exact their revenge, they could move to within six points of Leeds Tykes as their fixture against Tynedale has been called off due to a frost-bound pitch.

Elsewhere in Round 12, third-placed Wharfedale face Billingham at The Avenue and an in-form Sheffield (5th) host Hull Ionians aiming to increase their unbeaten streak to five matches while Fylde face Hull, Preston Grasshoppers visit Lymm and bottom-of-the-table Huddersfield take on Otley.

National Two East

November provided us with some pulsating action across levels three and four, and arguably at the epicentre of it all was National Two East. Various twists and turns at the top have left us with a fascinating promotion picture and one or two more details could well be added before the Christmas interlude.

And it perhaps all circulates around league leaders Dorking. On paper, last month looked hazardous for Armand Roux’s side and so it proved as a defeat to Bury St Edmunds and a draw with Henley Hawks were bolted in between hard-fought wins over Old Albanian and Sevenoaks, respectively.

But having said this, in the matches they didn’t win, the Red and Whites still collected four points. While that doesn’t sound like a great deal, it has been beneficial to Dorking because they have remained on top of the pile throughout November.

Now it’s time for the final set of obstacles for 2023 and Dorking are set to face stern opposition once again. Next week, they collide with second-placed Esher in a mouthwatering encounter but this weekend they go to Tonbridge Juddians (7th). 

Peter Dankert’s troops aren’t quite in the thick of the promotion chatter but TJs are yet to lose at The Slade this season and they are actually unbeaten in eight games at home. Dorking’s last two away fixtures have been tricky so how will Round 12 play out?

As mentioned, Esher are the nearest challengers to Dorking and a fabulous run of five straight wins leaves them just two points off the top with a showdown against their title rivals to come next Saturday. However, first up for Peter Winterbottom’s men is a meeting with Worthing while Barnes (3rd) will be aiming to bounce back from successive defeats when they go to Sevenoaks.

Last weekend, Henley Hawks (4th) inflicted one of those losses on Barnes and now Luke Allen’s boys will be out to extend their unbeaten run to five games when they take on Westcombe Park while two in-form sides collide in Suffolk as Bury St Edmunds (5th) host Canterbury (6th).

Also across National Two East, Old Albanian face Guernsey Raiders and Wimbledon go up against North Walsham.

National Two West

Having lost two of their first five games, Dings Crusaders (2nd) have been faultless since September and as the weeks go by, the Bristol outfit are beginning to look more and more like the side that finished second last season.

Stean Williams’ men enter December having won their last six matches and they sit 10 points off the top with the festive period now upon us. If the Crusaders are to keep league leaders Luctonians in their sights, you feel a bonus-point success against Newport (Salop) is integral this weekend especially with tricky trips to Redruth and Clifton (3rd) to come before the Christmas break.

The visitors to Shaftesbury Park are currently second from bottom and are three points clear of Dudley Kingswinford. Added to this, Newport haven’t won a league fixture on the road since October 2022 but what they have been able to do this term is still collect bonus points even if the results have gone against them.

They did exactly this in recent fixtures against Exeter University [a game they were so close to winning] and at Redruth, but this will be another challenge for Bob Adams’ side as they go in search of that elusive away victory.

If they were to upset the odds, it could potentially leave Luctonians further in the driving seat at the summit of National Two West. Ryan Watkins’ table-toppers ended November strongly and will be keen to maintain their cushion at the top when they visit Hornets while third-placed Clifton host Loughborough Students.

Loughborough stuck 82 points on fourth-placed Camborne last week so the Cherry and Whites will want to prove to everyone that it was a freak result when they entertain Exeter University (5th) while elsewhere, two in-form sides in Hinckley and Old Redcliffians meet at Leicester Road, Redruth visit Dudley Kingswinford and Chester take on Bournville.

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