Crucial games in National One as well as in National Two North and West will impact the relegation picture while the title race in National Two East braces itself for another big weekend. (Photo Credit: Ian Jackson)

National One

Having opportunities and not taking them. That seemed to be the feeling within the Taunton Titans (14th) camp after their home defeat against Bishop’s Stortford last weekend. Billed as the battle of the bottom two, it was the visitors who boosted their National One survival hopes while Tony Yapp’s troops stayed at the foot of the table.

It now means Taunton enter the final five games of the season seven points adrift of safety and if the Titans did have opportunities in Round 21, there are still chances in the coming weeks for them to pull off an escape from relegation.

Between now and the end of April, they play four teams currently in the bottom half starting with this Saturday’s trip to 12th-placed Leicester Lions.

No wins from their last three have kept Taunton anchored to the floor of National One and a mini dip in form for Leicester Lions – combined with an upturn in results for others – leaves them floating precariously above the trapdoor. One victory from their last four matches isn’t disastrous but Gareth Collins’ side are now just two points clear of the bottom two.

If we are talking about Taunton ‘taking opportunities’, the Lions will be eager to do the same as after this meeting with the Titans, they face 11th-placed Bishop’s Stortford. Without a doubt, there will be plenty on the line at Westleigh Park.

Sandwiched in-between Taunton and Leicester Lions are Cinderford (13th), who fell back into the relegation places following their loss at third-placed Birmingham Moseley. Paul Morris’ side take on title-chasing Rams RFC (2nd) this weekend while the aforementioned Bishop’s Stortford go to league leaders Chinnor.

Stortford will arrive at the home of the table-toppers in good spirits as back-to-back away wins have left Marcus Cattell’s side three points clear of danger, but the mood around Chinnor will be one of buoyance after Nick Easter’s men were able to extend their gap at the summit in Round 21.

Their bonus-point win at Plymouth Albion coupled with Rams’ home defeat against Sale FC means the Black and Whites hold a five-point advantage, something they will look to maintain this weekend.

Birmingham Moseley (3rd) are 13 points behind the leading duo but the Midlands club may well have a say in this title race as they host both Chinnor and Rams next month. Before any of that unfolds though, Adam Balding’s charges go to Blackheath (9th) on Saturday.

Elsewhere, Rosslyn Park (4th) visit Darlington Mowden Park (6th), Richmond (5th) travel to Plymouth Albion (7th) and it is a North-West derby as Sedgley Park (9th) go in search of their first win of the calendar year against an in-form Sale FC (10th).

National Two North

When the National Two North ‘highlights’ were published on our social media channels on Monday night, Billingham (12th) shared the post on Instagram and captioned it: ‘Finally’.

After 14 matches, the North-East side ‘finally’ returned to winning ways against Sheffield Tigers, a result which lifted them out of the bottom two. Their five-month wait for a victory is over and another success before the Easter break would be huge for Peter Evans’ side. Next weekend, they are back at Greenwood Road to face bottom-of-the-table Huddersfield but first up is a trip to 10th-placed Preston Grasshoppers.

Billingham are 11 points behind their Lancashire hosts, who themselves recorded an important triumph last time out as Hoppers moved away from the epicentre of the relegation battle.

They hammered the aforementioned Huddersfield 70-19 at Lightfoot Green, and a similar outcome at home on Saturday would represent a significant step towards another season in National Two for Alex Keay’s men.

Hull Ionians (13th) will be hoping Preston can come out on top, especially after the I’s dropped back into the danger zone last weekend. Joe Makin’s troops started brightly against title challengers Rotherham Titans but ultimately fell away. Their defeat – combined with Billingham’s win – means the Yorkshire outfit are still fighting for their spot in National League Rugby.

The men from Brantingham Park are level on points with Billingham so they could move out of the bottom two with a positive outcome against Tynedale (6th).

At the top, this epic promotion battle between Leeds Tykes (1st) and Rotherham Titans (2nd) is coming to the boil. Last time out, the Tykes made it an astonishing 21 wins from 21 games but the fact they were unable to claim a bonus point against Wharfedale speaks volumes about the standard which has been set in this title race.

While Leeds displayed great character at The Avenue, Rotherham recorded their 10th bonus-point win in a row meaning the gap at the top is down to five points with next Saturday’s meeting between the pair on the horizon.

Before that though, the Tykes host Lymm (11th) with the Titans travelling to eighth-placed Hull.

Also across National Two North this weekend, Sheffield (3rd) go to Huddersfield – with the hosts running out of time to stay in the division – while Wharfedale (4th) meet Sheffield Tigers (7th) and Fylde (5th) visit Otley (9th).

National Two East

Barnes (2nd) may have been adamant about keeping the pressure on league leaders Esher, and their endeavour and steely focus paid dividends last weekend. Round 21 produced arguably the first major twist in the National Two East title race as while the table toppers saw their 13-match unbeaten run come to an end at Tonbridge Juddians (5th), Barnes racked up a seventh straight victory to cut the gap at the summit to just a single point.

Granted, Esher do have a game in hand but Jack Heald’s men are making sure this promotion fight goes into April because the final month of the season could be extremely intriguing.

Of course, Barnes’ main focus will be a home meeting against sixth-placed Bury St Edmunds this weekend but they – along with fellow title candidates Dorking (3rd) – still have to play Esher, with Barnes facing the EEEs at home on the final day of the campaign.

As for Dorking – who also sit one point off the top – they travel to Esher on April 13th but like Barnes, the Red and Whites cannot afford to look too far ahead especially with Henley Hawks (4th) visiting Surrey on Saturday.

So just one point separates the top three meaning Esher will be eager to stay in pole position. In Round 22, they face bottom-of-the-table North Walsham who will be relegated if they suffer a defeat at Norwich Road.

With the Vikings’ fate almost sealed, the same cannot be said for Wimbledon (13th) who are still fighting for their National Two status. Due to the format of relegation this season, Collin Osborne’s men are currently safe but they will need to keep adding to their points total, beginning with a clash against Tonbridge Juddians (5th).

Worthing Raiders (12th) – who sit five points clear of Wimbledon – host Sevenoaks (8th) while elsewhere, Canterbury (7th) take on Guernsey Raiders (11th) and Westcombe Park (9th) face Old Albanian (10th).

National Two West

Is there a sense of Dudley Kingswinford (13th) refusing to go quietly? Six points from their previous two matches has given them a fighting chance of potentially staying in National Two and even though they lost against Chester last time out, there were still positives to harness going into a crucial home clash against 12th-placed Hornets.

The demise of Jersey Reds from the Championship had a consequential impact on relegation from National Two this term. Like last year, the clubs who finish bottom of the three National Two leagues will be relegated to level five but for 2023/24, the playing records of the three clubs in 13th position across the three National Two leagues will be compared.

The club with the best playing record will remain in National Two and the other two clubs will be relegated to level five.

To give this some context, as things stand,  Wimbledon (13th in National Two East) are on 33 points, Hull Ionians (13th in National Two North) are 32 points while Dudley Kingswinford are on 25 points.

With the team directly above the bottom two in National Two West – Bournville – on 43 points, it means DK are currently chasing down Wimbledon’s points tally of 33 as the Dons have the best playing record of the teams in 13th place.

Make sense? No matter which way you look at it, a win feels like a must for Dudley Kingswinford on Saturday but Hornets arrive at Heathbrook on a four-match unbeaten run.

Like DK, Newport (Salop) are currently targeting Wimbledon but the division’s bottom side will need to bounce back from three heavy defeats when they go to Exeter University (4th) this weekend.

In terms of the title race, Luctonians (1st) reacted to their loss against second-placed Dings Crusaders with an impressive 27-7 win away at Camborne (6th) last week. Ryan Watkins’ men welcome third-placed Clifton to Mortimer Park on Saturday while Dings – who are two points behind and on a 16-match unbeaten streak – visit Loughborough Students (9th).

Elsewhere, Hinckley (5th) travel to Redruth (8th)Camborne are at Bournville and Old Redcliffians (7th) entertain Chester (10th).

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