The battles towards the top of all four leagues in National League Rugby have interesting narratives attached to them – with a familiar-looking picture in National Two East providing a competitive outlook. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Knight)
Alex Wood’s assessment of the season so far for Barnes speaks volumes: “I think if we’d had said at the start of the summer that we would only be three points behind the leader [at this stage], we’d have settled for that,” says the prop.
Jack Heald’s take also gives us an insight into the aspirations of the National Two East outfit: “We want to be a sustainable top-four team. You can’t afford to have an off day because there are some very good teams in this league,” adds Barnes’ Director of Rugby.
You can say the thoughts of both Wood and Heald are pretty accurate. Included in their first eight games of the season were an away trip to Esher, a clash with Dorking and a tricky visit to Guernsey Raiders all of which may have shaped Barnes’ goals for the campaign ahead.
However, their opening block of results has further cemented the notion that the London-based side mean business again in 2023/24.
“I was at the first game of the season where we were away at Esher,” says Barnes chairman Colum Mannix, reflecting on the 39-38 win. “The lads turned on a performance there where you knew they were serious this year. We have shown that since then. We haven’t beaten Dorking but we are only three points off them.”
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As Mannix touches on, his team are currently three points behind the impressive Dorking – who top the division following eight straight victories – but seven wins from eight games has left Barnes in a great position to have another tilt at the title.
Last year, both Barnes and Dorking were ultimately in the shadow of eventual champions Blackheath but this season, the pair who finished second and third respectively and were separated by just four points, are picking up from where they left off.
“I am really pleased with the progress this season,” says Barnes president Michael Whitfield. “There is a consistency about us. We just need to learn how to beat Dorking who we have lost to by one or two points three times now! Joking aside, we are very happy to be where we are.”
Before the beginning of the season, some may have felt Barnes would be there or thereabouts when it came to challenging towards the summit of the division but being one of the strongest sides in National Two East hasn’t just happened overnight.
When the 2019/20 campaign was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, Barnes finished that year in 12th position and when level four rugby returned in 2021/22, the Green and Golds ended the term one place higher.
But last season – and during the first eight rounds of 2023/24 – is where Barnes have soared up the standings. So how have they become serious challengers for promotion to National One?
“This squad we have got together, we lost a lot of players after Covid,” Mannix explains. “Michael, the coaches and Jack rebuilt the squad and have done a brilliant job. This is their third season together and it is really showing. Consistency works in rugby and we are getting the rewards for that consistency in what I see now. It is not a magic trick we have done. We have done the hard work.”
“Look, we have built a strong squad but our second team is second in the Raging Bull Division 1 League and I think that is a testament to the strength in depth we have been able to create and the coaching group we have now got,” adds Whitfield.
Building a strong player base – combined with the vision of Heald and the club – is now coming to fruition and the 1st XV will be keen to sustain their high standards between now and Christmas as they look to keep pace with Dorking.
📲🏉 National League Rugby Highlights: Round 8 | #Nat2e
— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) November 6, 2023
If Barnes’ first eight matches looked hazardous in places, their block of games between now and the festive period presents another intriguing challenge. They kick things off this Saturday against Old Albanian (H) before they play three of their fellow top-six sides in Bury St Edmunds away (5th) and both Henley Hawks (4th) and Tonbridge Juddians (6th) at home.
With league leaders Dorking entertaining Bury St Edmunds this weekend before a run of fixtures which includes meetings with Henley and third-placed Esher, the next month or so could be crucial at the top of National Two East.
“It is as cliche as you want it to be but you have got to go training session by training session, game by game,” Heald admits. “If you have an off day or you take your eye off the ball because you are looking too far ahead, your aspirations are affected.
“We know we have got a tough challenge with OAs and Bury [St Edmunds] and then Henley [Hawks] who are all top six outfits so like we said earlier, the challenges are pretty obvious. We just need to go again.”
Elsewhere in National Two East in Round Nine, the aforementioned Esher host Tonbridge Juddians in another eye-catching fixture towards the right end of the table while Henley travel to Worthing. Seventh-placed Canterbury will be looking to build on last week’s win when they visit bottom-of-the-table North Walsham, Guernsey Raiders go to Westcombe Park and Wimbledon face Sevenoaks.
Following Rams RFC’s loss to Darlington Mowden Park last week, you wouldn’t go far wrong by saying that Chinnor’s (2nd) meeting with Plymouth Albion (3rd) has perhaps taken on a greater significance. Both teams – who are level on points – have been excellent this season and if title dreams are starting to creep into the minds of either side, a victory this weekend will only strengthen those thoughts.
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Chinnor enter Round Nine on a four-match winning streak and have lost just one of their last nine at Kingsey Road. They have also only conceded four tries at home so far this term so that is the task ahead for Albion, who did do the double over Saturday’s opponents last season.
After successive losses, league leaders Rams only have a three-point buffer between themselves and their nearest rivals and they travel to bottom-of-the-table Sale FC this weekend intending to get their campaign back on track.
Also across the third tier, Sedgley Park (4th) will be gunning for four in a row when they visit a Darlington Mowden Park side who will be in good spirits while an in-form Birmingham Moseley go to Cinderford, Richmond face Blackheath, Rosslyn Park are up against Leicester Lions and Bishop’s Stortford take on Taunton Titans in an interesting game towards the bottom.
National Two North
Preston Grasshoppers may have spent the start of this week thinking; ‘What if?’
A last-gasp try from Sheffield Tigers’ Barney Goatley denied Alex Keay’s troops a first home win of the season but the Lancashire club must dust themselves down and focus on their upcoming clash with fellow bottom-two side Huddersfield.
We might only be in November, but victory in Yorkshire on Saturday would certainly boost morale inside the Hoopers camp. They do have a nine-point cushion between themselves and Huddersfield but a third away success of the term would create some serious daylight.
As for the hosts, Neil Ryan’s men were on the wrong end of hammering at Fylde last time out which condemned the Lockwood Park outfit to a sixth straight loss. With that in mind, they will be desperate to record a first home triumph since February to light the fuse on their campaign and, more importantly, gain some ground on those above.
Round Nine in National Two North begins on Friday night as league leaders Leeds Tykes go in search of a 10th straight bonus-point win when they host an in-form Wharfedale (3rd) and second-placed Rotherham Titans will be keen to see the outcome of that Yorkshire derby ahead of their visit to Hull Ionians on Saturday.
Elsewhere, Sheffield Tigers will be targeting a third straight win when they face Billingham and city rivals Sheffield take on Fylde while Hull host Lymm and Tynedale go to Otley.
National Two West
Luctonians won’t thank us for saying this but having suggested last week that November could be a defining period in their season, it didn’t begin in the way the National Two West table-toppers would have liked.
A late and narrow defeat away at Dings Crusaders in Round Eight was the first setback of the season for an impressive Lucs outfit and now they will have to display all of their character as they look to instantly bounce back.
📲🏉 National League Rugby Highlights: Round 8 | #Nat2w
— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) November 6, 2023
Before the end of the month, they face three more of their fellow top-six counterparts starting with Camborne (4th) on Saturday. Luctonians have been irresistible at times at Mortimer Park but the visitors from Cornwall have the tools to ruffle some feathers in Herefordshire. The Cherry and Whites – who gained promotion back into the National Leagues in February – have won their last five games so could they add another twist to this fascinating battle towards the summit?
Camborne are only five points off the top with second-placed Clifton and Exeter University (3rd) sandwiched in between. Clifton won’t let their thoughts wander to next week’s meeting with Luctonains especially with a Bristol derby against Old Redcliffians coming up this weekend while Exeter make the trip to Redurth.
Also on Saturday in National Two West, fifth-placed Dings Crusaders will be looking to add to last week’s success when they travel to Bournville and Chester (6th) go to Dudley Kingswinford while Hinckley face Hornets and Loughborough Students host Newport (Salop).
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