Title dreams and survival hopes can be handed a major boost in Round 18
Four of the top five teams in National One go head-to-head to conclude January while there is also a huge game at the wrong end of the division. (Photo Credit: Paul Clark)
After current league leaders Sale FC dispatched Rosslyn Park and Rams just before Christmas, the North West outfit looked in a decent position to continue their strong pursuit of the title. Back-to-back victories to begin 2023 kept them on course but last week’s home loss to Cambridge has completely changed the dynamic of this promotion race.
The Blood and Sand’s 35-19 victory means now only five points separate the top three in the third tier but critically, Richie Williams’ troops and second-placed Rams have two games in hand over Sale.
Any more sub-plots? Only the small matter of Cambridge hosting Rams to see out the month as this National One title battle prepares for its latest compelling chapter. Both teams have won all of their matches in January and there are only two points between the pair ahead of their meeting at Granchester Road. Rams won the reverse fixture 29-26 earlier in the campaign and whoever is triumphant this time around will only bolster their chances of winning the league.
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Sale FC will be keeping tabs on how proceedings are going in Cambridge but Jonathan Keep’s men will know they have to focus on their own fixture with Cinderford (5th) as they look to bounce back at the first attempt. Rosslyn Park (4th) are only eight points off the summit but like the table-toppers, they will be concentrating on their own job when they entertain Darlington Mowden Park in Round 18.
Big games at the top and big games at the bottom as Leeds Tykes host Hull, who are currently rooted to the foot of the division. The Tykes are 10 points adrift of safety while the Humberside outfit are a further 13 points back so both clubs will be desperate to pick up a victory to spark their survival bids.
Taunton Titans will be hoping to follow suit when they host an in-form Esher at Veritas Park while elsewhere, Bishop’s Stortford go to Birmingham Moseley and Plymouth Albion take on Chinnor at Brickfields.
National Two North
It might sound a bit ridiculous to say but this could be a big weekend for Preston Grasshoppers. Last Saturday’s loss to Sheffield was their third on the spin and considering two of those defeats were against sides directly above them in the table, you get the feeling the Lancashire club will be determined to arrest this dip in form when they visit Sheffield Tigers (9th) in Round 18.
Hoppers currently sit 12 points above the relegation places but Harrogate – their closest challengers – do have two games in hand and given Preston also play three of the current top four in February, a victory in Yorkshire this weekend would be most welcome. Dan Orwin’s boys have only picked up three wins all season but one of those successes did come against the Tigers back in October. Can they take inspiration from that?
Harrogate will be hoping that isn’t the case as they continue to try and hunt down Preston. The men from Rudding Lane are also in the Steel City on Saturday to take on Sheffield (10th) and with relegation rivals Blaydon to come next weekend, it could also be a crucial couple of weeks for Martyn Wood’s charges.
Blaydon themselves have the daunting prospect of a trip to promotion-chasing Sedgley Park while new league leaders Fylde welcome Rotherham Titans to Woodlands.
Third-placed Hull Ionians visit Huddersfield in Round 18 while also across National Two North, Otley (4th) entertain Chester (5th) and Tynedale take on Wharfedale.
National Two East
Both Sevenoaks and Rochford Hundred won’t be feeling comfortable just yet in the fight towards the wrong end of National Two East. Recent strong showings from Canterbury and North Walsham means the battle to stay in the division has become closer, with just 10 points separating the four sides who are currently above bottom-of-the-table Westcliff.
Sevenoaks enter this weekend having won just one of their last nine games and coincidentally, Rochford Hundred also have the same record. Both clubs have a game in hand over North Walsham – with Rochford seven points above the drop zone while Adam Bowman’s men are just five points clear – so there is seemingly a lot on the line in Kent.
We welcome @Old_AlbanianRFC to Well Hall tomorrow. Entry is £15 (online tickets can be bought from Ticket Co https://t.co/ZStYDfs7E3) with under 16s FREE. Here’s your squad list:#blackheathrugby #blackheathfc #club #returntorugby #blackheath #greenwich #eltham #homegame #nat2e pic.twitter.com/60emNFUBMh
— BlackheathRugby (@Blackheath_1858) January 27, 2023
As for the aforementioned Canterbury and North Walsham, the City Men visit title challengers Dorking (3rd) while the Norfolk outfit go to another club in the promotion hunt, Barnes (4th).
Speaking of the summit, Blackheath (1st) will be out to strengthen their 10-point gap at the top against fifth-placed Old Albanian. ‘Club’ have only lost twice this term but one of those defeats for the league leaders did come away at OAs back in October.
Elsewhere, second-placed Worthing Raiders host Bury St Edmunds, Tonbridge Juddians face Henley Hawks and Guernsey Raiders visit Westcliff.
National Two West
Fourteen points from their last six games should act as a source of encouragement for Hornets. Jon Richardson’s side have deservedly started to climb the standings but the Weston-super-Mare outfit are certainly not out of the woods when it comes to this enthralling relegation fight in National Two West.
The men from The Nest are seven points clear of the bottom two but another positive display against Exeter University this weekend would be the perfect way to enter February. In terms of Exeter, they have been a constant in the top six since the beginning of the season but they will be aware they won’t be in for an easy ride on Saturday considering the last time these two sides met, Keith Fleming’s men edged a pulsating contest 48-40.
Hornets rivals – Newport (Salop) and Barnstaple – take on Loughborough Students and Dings Crusaders (3rd), respectively – while Bournville, who currently sit in the drop zone, take the trip to second-placed Clifton and Old Redcliffians face league leaders Leicester Lions in the Midlands.
Elsewhere, Redruth welcome Luctonians to The Recreation Ground and Hinckley go to bottom-of-the-table Stourbridge.