Big clashes at the wrong end of National One and National Two West – as well as a top-of-the-table humdinger in National Two North – could shape the rest of the season for several clubs. Photo Credit: (Steve Karpa)
What a difference two months has made. Esher have gone from being unable to buy a win to now being three points clear of the bottom three. Nineteen points from their last six games – including four brilliant victories – has elevated the EEEs’ season and last weekend’s win over Birmingham Moseley only added to the feel-good factor in Surrey.
A fifth success of the campaign would move them even further away from danger so can Leeds Tykes halt the momentum of their relegation rivals? Jon Callard’s side are five points from safety – with a game in hand – and whilst performances have been encouraging, they haven’t tasted victory since the middle of October. With Chinnor and Hull also on the horizon, it feels like a massive three weeks for the Yorkshire outfit. Leeds did beat Esher 26-24 earlier in the season and a repeat of that outcome would be the ideal way to begin a crucial sequence of fixtures.
First Win of 2023 for the 1XV 🔥
Thank you to all who came down to support!
The Cardinals battled hard against a strong Ampthill outfit but wasn't to be today.
The Abbots played with team spirit in muddy conditions against a strong Wimbledon who pulled away in the second half. pic.twitter.com/yJYGCLOgRG
— Esher Rugby (@esherrugby) January 7, 2023
Separating Esher and Leeds Tykes in the table are Taunton Titans who may well be able to take advantage of two of their rivals facing one another in Round 16. However, that is easier said than done as Tony Yapp’s side welcome league leaders Sale FC to Somerset this weekend with the North West outfit targeting a 10th straight victory.
Second-placed Rams RFC will be looking to keep the pressure on when they host Bishop’s Stortford while Cambridge (3rd) entertain Darlington Mowden Park ahead of next week’s mouth-watering clash with Sale.
After beginning 2023 with a humbling defeat, Rosslyn Park will be eager to bounce back at home to bottom-of-the-table Hull while elsewhere, Cinderford take on Plymouth Albion and Birmingham Moseley face Chinnor.
National Two North
For the next two weeks at least, the attention returns to the summit of National Two North and Fylde’s (2nd) home clash with third-placed Hull Ionians rightly takes centre stage in Round 16. Any title race clichés you would like to label this fixture with, be our guest because the outcome at Woodlands could significantly boost or dent any promotion ambitions.
Let’s start with the hosts. Fylde currently sit two points behind league leaders Sedgley Park – who entertain Harrogate this weekend – and they have stitched together a run of four successive victories since they lost to the table-toppers two months ago. That defeat at the beginning of November is the only time Chris Briers and Alex Loney’s boys haven’t been in the winners’ lounge this season but Hull Ionians will be hoping to put an end to that.
The I’s are five points behind Fylde – and seven points off the summit – and the only setbacks they have experienced this term have been against their promotion rivals. Immediately after this trip to Lancashire, Graham Steadman’s troops take on Sedgley Park in Round 17 so this Saturday really does feel like a pivotal point in the National Two North title race.
With the spotlight on the top three over the next fortnight, Otley (4th) could edge themselves closer to the leading trio but for now, the Yorkshire outfit will be focused on continuing their fabulous season. The men from Cross Green enter this weekend’s meeting with Sheffield Tigers on a run of seven consecutive wins whilst in contrast, it will be a fresh start for Rotherham Titans on Saturday.
The Clifton Lane outfit have appointed Gary Pearce as their new head of coaching and after guiding Hull to promotion in 2021-22, the Titans will be hoping the Welshman can have a similar, positive impact when he takes his new club to Tynedale in Round 16.
Elsewhere, a buoyant Huddersfield entertain Preston Grasshoppers with both clubs eyeing a victory which would nudge them further away from danger while Chester go to Sheffield and Wharfedale face Blaydon,
National Two East
Barnes and Henely Hawks may see this fixture as an opportunity to potentially strengthen their bids for top spot. Both sides have Blackheath (1st) on their radar, but it is Barnes who have a sharper focus on the current league leaders. Jack Heald’s men are eight points off the summit – albeit having played a game more – but they will be determined to respond at the first time of asking in Round 16 following a heartbreaking defeat to rivals Dorking (4th) last time out.
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— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) January 9, 2023
As for Henley, they are experiencing a mini purple patch in form as three consecutive victories has moved them to within 10 points of the table-toppers. That is still a significant gap to close but the Hawks are slowly building momentum and a win in the capital on Saturday could possibly raise expectations amongst the Dry Leas faithful.
We’ve referenced them a lot but Blackheath are the side in pole position at the moment and following their success against Rochford Hundred last weekend, ‘Club’ are back at Well Hall to entertain a Canterbury outfit who were able to edge themselves away from the bottom two in Round 15 thanks to a comprehensive win over Westcliff.
Second-placed Old Albanian will be keen to stay on the heels of Blackheath and Dan George’s and James Osborn’s charges face a tricky trip to Tonbridge Juddians in The National League Rugby Review Show’s Key Game of the week.
Meanwhile in National Two East, Dorking take on Sevenoaks, an in-form Worthing Raiders (4th) host Rochford Hundred and Guernsey Raiders visit North Walsham.
National Two West
Newport (Salop)’s trip to Barnstaple is a vital game in the fight to avoid relegation from National Two West. Newport’s run of results in December were far from ideal as they collected zero points from their three outings but they kicked off 2023 with an extremely impressive showing against league leaders Leicester Lions. Bob Adams’ side picked up two points from their 38-32 loss and it was a result which lifted the club out of the bottom two.
They currently sit just one point clear of the dreaded dotted line but Barnstaple are only above the trapdoor by virtue of the number of wins they have accumulated so far this term. Two of those victories came just before Christmas which is why the Chiefs are currently outside the relegation places, and the visit of Newport provides them with another golden opportunity to boost their survival hopes. We might only be in January, but this clash at Pottington Road feels huge.
As for the clubs surrounding Newport and Barnstaple, the bottom two – Bournville and Stourbridge – will be looking to open their account for the New Year when they host Dings Crusaders and Exeter University respectively while Hornets, who performed well in defeat against Redruth last time out, travel to Loughborough Students and Old Redcliffians have their second Bristol derby in as many weeks when they take on second-placed Clifton.
Clifton will want to continue hunting down table-toppers Leicester Lions – who entertain Luctonians this weekend – while Hinckley (3rd) go to Redruth as they aim to stay in the promotion conversation.