It’s time to dust off the abacus, scroll through fixture lists and bite those fingernails. The run-in to the 2023/24 campaign begins with Round 21 and there is still so much to be decided. (Photo Credit: John Ashton)

National One

The battle at the bottom of National One is as keenly contested as it is at the top – and that will only intensify this weekend.

In terms of the title race, only ‘points difference’ separates league leaders Chinnor and second-placed Rams RFC with the table-toppers visiting Plymouth Albion (5th) this weekend whilst Rams host Sale FC (10th).

To say Plymouth and Sale FC are bogey teams for the leading duo might be exaggerating things slightly, but Chinnor haven’t beaten Albion in their last three meetings whilst you have to go back to December 2019 for the last time Rams got the better of Sale FC.

What we are trying to say is neither fixture will be a ‘walk in the park’ for the promotion challengers and while it remains fascinating at the summit, Round 21’s clash between the division’s bottom two – Taunton Titans (14th) and Bishop’s Stortford (13th) – is arguably the game of the weekend.

With six matches remaining in the season, the magnitude of this showdown at Veritas Park cannot be understated with both teams knowing how valuable a victory could be.

As things stand, Taunton are propping up the table and sit six points from safety but Tony Yapp’s side are from dead and buried. Including this visit from Bishop’s Stortford, they still have to face the other four sides in the bottom five so there are opportunities for the Titans to dig themselves out of trouble.

As for Stortford, they are just two points from safety but a recent away victory over Sedgley Park (9th) – combined with a spirited display against Rosslyn Park (4th) – will encourage Marcus Cattell’s troops as they head to Somerset. They also defeated Taunton 38-29 in the reverse fixture back in November and haven’t lost to the Titans in any of their last five games. How they would love for that sequence to continue this weekend.

Just above the dreaded dotted line are Cinderford (12th) who entered last week’s break on a high after claiming a morale-boosting victory over Richmond. Paul Morris’ men will be looking to add to their survival bid on Saturday but it will be tough away at third-placed Birmingham Moseley while Leicester Lions (11th) – who are four points clear of the drop – visit Rosslyn Park.

The weekend’s action begins under the Friday night lights of The Athletic Ground as the oldest fixture in club rugby – Richmond (6th) vs Blackheath (8th) – gets ready for the latest chapter in its 160-year history. Elsewhere, Darlington Mowden Park (7th) go to Sedgley Park.

National Two North

March will undoubtedly be a significant month in National Two North, not least because of a quite remarkable title race.

Throughout the whole of the English rugby pyramid, no one is on a longer winning streak than league leaders Leeds Tykes who have been utterly sensational this term. Twenty wins out of 20 leaves them on course for an immediate return to National One but despite their scintillating, relentless campaign, there is still work to be done if the Tykes are to achieve that feat.

Between now and when the season concludes at the end of April, Leeds still have to play all four of their fellow top-five sides – three of which are away from home. That run on the road begins this weekend when they visit Wharfedale (4th) before trips to Rotherham Titans (2nd) and Fylde (5th), respectively.

The Tykes have picked up an astonishing 99 points from a possible 100 – which includes 19 bonus-point victories – but the only side to stop them from collecting a maximum were Wharfedale back in Round Nine.

The Green Machine are having an excellent season in their own right, and are set for their highest finish since they were relegated to National Two North in 2015/16. Simon Verbickas’ charges have also won their last eight home games but if they were able to end Leeds’ stunning sequence of results, it would be one of the highlights of their campaign.

If Dale do tame the Tykes, second-placed Rotherham Titans are in a position to pounce. Following last week’s success at Huddersfield, Gareth Lewis’ men were able to close the gap at the top to six points and they extended their winning run to nine bonus-point victories in the process.

With a possible title decider to come at the end of the month against Leeds, Rotherham’s latest assignment sees them face Hull Ionians (12th) at Clifton Lane.

The I’s will arrive in South Yorkshire in good spirits as last time out, they picked up their first triumph since October. A precious 31-19 win over Lymm lifted them five points clear of relegation rivals Billingham (13th) who host sixth-placed Sheffield Tigers this weekend. As for bottom-of-the-table Huddersfield – who are 14 points from safety with six games remaining  – they visit Preston Grasshoppers (11th).

Also across National Two North, Sheffield (3rd) go to Fylde (5th) and Tynedale (7th) entertain Otley (9th) while Hull (8th) take on Lymm (10th).

National Two East

It was arguably four months ago when the dial started to shift towards Esher (1st) in the race for promotion. A couple of tough fixtures for Barnes (2nd) and Dorking (3rd) saw two of the current title candidates slightly stumble allowing the current league leaders to grab hold of top spot.

Fast-forward to March and both Barnes and Dorking are preparing for the reverse of those ‘tough fixtures’ in their pursuit of Esher. For Barnes, meetings with Bury St Edmunds (5th) at home and Henley Hawks (4th) away – opponents they lost to back in November – are to come but first up, Jack Heald’s in-form side go to Old Albanian (9th) as they aim for a seventh straight victory.

Thanks to their recent efficient displays, Barnes have kept their promotion hopes alive and are five points off the summit (albeit having played a game more than Esher) whilst Dorking are also in the same boat.

Three successive wins have kept Dorking in the hunt and this weekend they go to Bury St Edmunds – who they were beaten by in Round Nine – before they host Henley, who rescued a late draw against Armand Roux’s men when the sides last met.

You could argue both Bury St Edmunds and Henley aren’t in the same form as they were in when they made life difficult for Barnes and Dorking earlier in the term, but those fixtures do look more hazardous on paper in comparison to Esher’s schedule.

The table-topping EEEs – who have won their last 13 matches – have a tricky trip to sixth-placed Tonbridge Juddians on Saturday, but they end the month against relegation-threatened North Walsham and second-from-bottom Wimbledon.

With six games left, [seven in Esher’s case], Peter Winterbottom’s men remain in control of their own destiny and if they can pull clear of Barnes and Dorking over the next few weeks, an instant return to National One would be within reach.

At the other end of the standings, the aforementioned North Walsham currently sit bottom of the division but Niall Lear’s side were able to get their first win of the season last weekend. A storming second-half display against Henley saw them break their duck, but it is likely to be too little, too late as the Vikings sit 23 points from safety with just 30 left on the table.

This Saturday, they face Canterbury (8th) whilst there is still plenty to fight for for Wimbledon (13th) who go to Sevenoaks (10th) with Worthing (12th) – who are five points clear of any potential danger – taking on Henley. Also in Round 21, Westcombe Park (7th) make the trip to Guernsey Raiders (11th).

National Two West

With temperatures slowly starting to rise and with spring now in the air, things are more than heating up in the National Two West battle for promotion. Before the league took some ‘downtime’ last week, the title race experienced its biggest twist to date with second-placed Dings Crusaders defeating league leaders Luctonians to cut the gap at the top to just two points.

The result also meant Stean Williams and Luke Arscott’s side are now 15 games unbeaten and some would argue momentum is now with the Crusaders. To kick things off for March, Dings host 12th-placed Bournville and while on paper it might sound straightforward, the Chocos arrive in Bristol having won two of their last three games and with in-form winger Nathan Decalmer in their armoury.

The Midlands outfit are capable of creating problems for the title challengers – as they did during their 24-17 loss back in November – but Dings will be confident of stretching their remarkable run of form to ensure they are ready to capitalise if Luctonians were to slip up away at sixth-placed Camborne this weekend.

After defeat to Dings back in Round Eight, the pressure increased slightly on Lucs but the table-toppers bounced back to collect maximum points from their next four games, something Ryan Watkins’ troops will be keen to replicate.

Switching things to the foot of the table where Dudley Kingswinford (13th) are not giving up the fight. Last time out, they upset the odds by securing an excellent victory over Clifton (4th) and due to how relegation is being decided this season, they are technically only nine points from safety. The next two fixtures for DK seem pivotal with an away trip to Chester (10th) this weekend (who they beat earlier in the season) before they host 11th-placed Hornets.

As for bottom of the division Newport (Salop), they are not done and dusted either as they sit 11 points from safety and entertain Loughborough Students (9th) on Saturday.

Elsewhere, third-placed Exeter University fresh from clinching the BUCS Super Rugby league title – resume their National League Rugby campaign against Redruth (8th) while Clifton host Old Redcliffians (7th) and Hinckley (5th) are over in Weston-super-Mare to face Hornets.

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