National One - 2018/19 Season Review

Ampthill and District and Old Elthamians battled it out for the National One title
©Ian Carter

After one of the best promotion races in years, Ampthill and District came out on top to win the 2018-19 National One title and a place in the Championship. However, it was far from straightforward for Mark Lavery and Paul Turner’s men during a season which contained plenty of twists and turns.

We take a look back at a wonderful campaign in National One.

Following 30 rounds of pulsating action, Ampthill and District were eventually crowned worthy champions. They were pushed all the way by a superb Old Elthamians side but after three solid seasons in National One, the A’s were able to take the next step.

Overall, they amassed 120 points and considering Ampthill didn’t reach the summit of this division until the end of January, it highlights just how relentless the Bedfordshire club were in the second half of the campaign.

In fact before Ampthill had moved into top spot, seven other clubs had occupied pole position and one of those aforementioned sides were runners-up Old Elthamians. It is easy to look at OEs’ clash with Ampthill at the beginning of March and say that’s where the title slipped away from Gavin Lach’s side, but the overriding feeling should be a positive one for the club after accumulating 115 points in only their second season at this level.

OEs put up an excellent promotion fight and for a period of time, it was a three-horse race. If you’d offered Rosslyn Park third place and 106 points at the start of the campaign, the men from the Rock may have snatched your hand off. Kieran Power’s side were disappointing in 2017/18, but Park showed their quality this term. Their excellent form kept them in the title picture, but a defeat to Ampthill at the end of March saw their promotion dream fade away. Nevertheless, this is a team that could well be challenging for top spot next season.

Behind Rosslyn Park were Blackheath and this was another positive season for James Shanahan’s side. A brilliant opening half of the campaign meant ‘Club’ sat just one point off the top heading into 2019, but a slight blip in form after Christmas ended Blackheath’s title bid. Still, the men from Well Hall steered themselves to a fourth-place finish and it gives them a solid foundation to work from next year.

Below the top four were Plymouth Albion, Rotherham Titans and Darlington Mowden Park and they all experienced mixed campaigns. After finishing in 3rd and 2nd place respectively last year, Albion and DMP may have been hoping to challenge for promotion this term but patchy form in the first half of the season cost them. DMP were actually top in the early stages of the campaign, but both teams really sparked into life after the Christmas interlude and showcased their qualities to conclude the campaign in the top half.

In terms of Rotherham Titans, they could have been eyeing an immediate return to the Championship after relegation last year, but Joe Barker’s young side took a while to adapt to the third tier. The Yorkshire club really did have an inconsistent campaign as sequences of victories were often followed by a series of defeats, but after a season at this level, the Titans will surely be more prepared for a sustained promotion challenge in 2019/20.

Following a two-year absence from National One, Cinderford had a very satisfactory campaign on their return to the third tier. Paul Morris’ side did find themselves at the summit of the division after six rounds, but in the end, they finished the season in eighth place. Some excellent results against the likes of Blackheath, Plymouth Albion and Darlington Mowden Park helped them secure a very credible top half finish, despite a few dips in form along the way.

Bishop’s Stortford and Chinnor finished on exactly the same number of points (72) as Cinderford and both clubs had a season of two halves this year. Stortford won on just four occasions before Christmas which left them languishing at the wrong end of the division, but a quite remarkable turnaround saw Andy Long’s side clinch a ninth-place finish.

Nine victories from 14 matches made sure Stortford booked their place in National One for a third successive year and a superb opening half of the season for Chinnor was key during their debut campaign at this level. In the middle of January, Matt Williams side were in the title conversation following a sensational start to the season, but their form tailed off in the remaining three months of the campaign. Having said that, Chinnor will be quietly optimistic going into next season, especially with a couple of recent signings they have made.  

From one promoted side to another and like Chinnor, Sale FC were competing in the third tier for the first time in the club’s history. After losing four matches in a row heading into February, Jonathan Keep’s men were able to stop the rot and showed their character to move away from any relegation trouble. Vital home wins over the likes of Plymouth Albion and Chinnor saw Sale finish in 10th place and the North-West outfit will be keen to push on next season.

Whilst we experienced a gripping title race in National One in 2018/19, the fight for survival also went down to the wire. Loughborough Students had their relegation confirmed at the beginning of April after eight seasons at this level, but four other sides were still battling to avoid the drop on the final day.

In the end, Birmingham Moseley and Cambridge stayed afloat. Followers of National One may have been surprised to see Moseley scrapping for safety with the squad they have, but they had a poor start to the season with one win from their first eight matches. From there, the Midlands club were embroiled in a relegation fight but six wins from their last seven games kept them in National One. With Adam Balding also coming in as Director of Rugby, the men from Billesley Common will be hoping to stay well away from the drop zone next year.

For Cambridge, their survival was a lot more dramatic. The Blood and Sand knew they had to get their job done against Sale FC in Round 30 and hope Moseley defeated rivals Caldy and both scenarios went in the favour of Cambridge. Richie Williams’ side were able to secure a fourth straight year of National One rugby at Volac Park, but this was their toughest campaign to date. Their disappointing form after Christmas pulled them towards the trapdoor, but survival was ensured and Cambridge can now look forward to another season in the third tier.

After a flying start to the season, there were no signs that Caldy were going to struggle in their second term at this level, but just two wins from 16 matches saw them fall down the table. In the end, one extra win would have been enough for them to stay up and with minutes to go against Moseley on the final day of the season, they were safe. However, Gareth Davies’ side suffered late agony and it is back to National Two North for the Wirral outfit. The big focus will now be on dusting themselves down to challenge for an instant return to National One.

Esher will be taking the same approach in National Two South. The Surrey-based club did manage to clinch a bonus-point win over Blackheath on the final day of the season, but it was too little, too late as they suffered relegation to the fourth tier. They were unable to build on an encouraging opening half of the season as Esher won on just four occasions following the Christmas break. Peter Winterbottom and Chris Wilkins will take over the reins from Tom Williams next season and they will be hoping to rebuild in order to get the club back to where they feel they belong.

Relegated from Championship: Richmond

Promoted from National One: Ampthill and District

Relegated from National One: Caldy, Esher and Loughborough Students

Promoted from National Two: Hull Ionians, Rams RFC and Canterbury

National League 1 2018/19 - Points Table