Why this Saturday cannot be classed as a ‘rest weekend’ in this compelling National League Rugby campaign
After a flurry of postponements towards the back end of last year, many fixtures were rescheduled for the opening weekend of February – and to say there is quite a bit on the line would be an understatement. (Photo Credit: Steve Karpa)
After losing to Sale FC and Cinderford before Christmas and fighting hard to get past Hull and Bishop’s Stortford at the beginning of the New Year, Rams RFC certainly dispelled any doubts surrounding their promotion pedigree last time out. A stunning final 14 minutes against title rivals Cambridge saw Seb Reynolds’ side come back from 15 points down to seal an unlikely victory which puts them in the driving seat for top spot.
However, the Berkshire club will know there is no room for error as they look to take advantage of their two games in hand over league leaders Sale FC. Rams (2nd) are currently two points off the summit and they can move into pole position with a victory away at Darlington Mowden Park. The North East side have had to contend with four consecutive away fixtures – which have all ended in defeat – but in their last game, they certainly caused third-placed Rosslyn Park some problems. Making life difficult for Rams won’t be DMP’s main motivation though, as Garry Law’s men sit just eight points clear of the bottom three.
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If Rams were to slip up in Darlington, Cambridge (4th) can close the gap and get their own title aspirations back on track. Last Saturday’s 33-27 loss would have stung Richie Williams’ men but they have an immediate chance to respond against bottom-of-the-table Hull at Granchester Road.
In the other three games which are taking place in National One, Birmingham Moseley will be aiming to distance themselves from the relegation scrap when they visit Cinderford, Leeds Tykes go to Plymouth Albion looking to build on last week’s crucial victory over Hull and Chinnor – who are five points clear of the drop zone – take on Bishop’s Stortford.
National Two North
It is the second week in a row that The National League Rugby Review Show’s Key Game will focus on a fight for survival but this time, the spotlight will be on National Two North as Harrogate welcome Blaydon to Rudding Lane.
On paper, it looks like it will be a formidable task for the division’s bottom two to dig themselves out of trouble but for Harrogate in particular, victory on Saturday could spark a revival. Martyn Wood’s side are currently 13 points from safety but do have two games in hand over their nearest rivals Preston Grasshoppers. A maximum this weekend going into their other game in hand against Wharfedale next week would surely provide the Yorkshire outfit with a major boost, but Blaydon will be eager to stop that from happening.
Sam Stuart’s troops were thrashed 75-0 by title-chasing Sedgley Park last time out and while those on the outside might feel like the North East club are devoid of confidence after a difficult January, this weekend’s visit to Harrogate could be the perfect opportunity for Blaydon to receive a welcome shot in the arm by recording their first victory since October.
At the top, league leaders Fylde will be looking to keep challengers Sedgley Park at bay in the latest episode of this fascinating title tussle. After a gritty and well-earned victory over Rotherham Titans in Round 18, the table-toppers face a tricky trip to fourth-placed Otley who are currently on an eight-game winning streak. As for Sedge – who are still undefeated this term – they visit Sheffield Tigers.
Elsewhere across the division, Hull Ionians – who had their possible promotion aspirations dented last week – go to Tynedale, Rotherham Titans entertain Wharfedale and Sheffield take on an in-form Huddersfield.
National Two East
North Walsham arguably hold the keys in the relegation battle in National Two East but they could be snatched out of their hands by Rochford Hundred on Saturday. A third victory in five games for James Knight’s charges would significantly raise North Walsham’s hopes of moving out of the drop zone. As things stand, they are currently seven points from safety with a game in hand, and the club who sit directly above them in the table are Rochford.
Speaking to Chris Phillips of The Southend Echo this week, head coach Danny Cleare described this clash at Magnolia Road as “it isn’t season defining, but it isn’t far off.” It’s not a surprise to hear the Rochford boss say this and after last week’s blow against table rivals Sevenoaks, the Essex outfit will be hoping that their positive showings at home continue as they target potentially their biggest result of the season.
'It isn’t season defining, but it isn’t far off'
There's a huge game for Rochford Hundred this weekend@RochfordRugby https://t.co/DcjtSaGRZM
— Chris Phillips (@CJPhillips1982) February 3, 2023
It is also intriguing at the top of the table this weekend as league leaders Blackheath travel to second-placed Worthing Raiders. ‘Club’ are currently eight points clear with a game in hand over Saturday’s opponents and James Shanahan’s men have also won their last six games.
As for the Raiders, they have stitched together seven straight victories and if they were to extend that sequence on Saturday, it would certainly change the picture at the summit.
Fellow promotion challengers Dorking host bottom-of-the-table Westcliff as they look to strengthen their own title bid while fourth-placed Barnes entertain Old Albanian. Elsewhere, Tonbridge Juddians take on Canterbury in an all-Kent affair and Bury St Edmunds face Guernsey Raiders.
National Two West
Can one of Hornets or Barnstaple take a crucial step away from the fight at the bottom of National Two West? This fixture between the pair does present that opportunity to both clubs, so whoever comes out on top at Pottington Road could go a long way to securing a place in the fourth tier for next season.
Hornets enter the first weekend of February six points clear of the drop zone and last time out against Exeter University, they were only denied a losing bonus point after conceding a late try. The Weston-super-Mare outfit have been good at collecting points in recent weeks and having lost to Barnstaple by the finest of margins back in September, Jon Richardson’s boys may also be out for revenge.
In terms of the hosts then, Barum are one place and three points behind Hornets but they do have a game in hand over their table rivals. Three wins from their last five games has given them more than a fighting chance of avoiding the drop this term and a victory on Saturday would just ease any relegation fears amongst the Chiefs’ ranks.
The two clubs either side of Hornets and Barnstaple in the standings – Old Redcliffians and Newport (Salop) – are also in action this weekend, with Old Reds visiting Exeter University while Newport host third-placed Dings Crusaders.
Meanwhile, league leaders Leicester Lions are involved in a Midlands derby against Hinckley as they look to further cement their position at the top.
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